A quick look in on Tijuana's schools

The deep rich bells of Eglesia de Guadalupe give a hushed calm to the lessons next door at Lazaro Cardenas Primary School in Tijuana, the Mexican border town south of San Diego. Forty-five orderly and uniformed youngsters in long rows rise as the inspector enters.

Deliberately and not without affection, the balding fatherly figure explains the purpose of his visit and then reminds the boys that it is not because he's jealous that he wants them to cut their hair. Titters. Sparkling eyes look to teacher for approval of their gentle laughter. She smiles. A classroom with "corazon" -- heart.

Then the inspector asks first graders how many know how to read. Almost all hands shoot into the air and faces beg, "Please, teacher, me. I want to show the inspector."

Mexican school officials are proud of their national reading program, which they boast has reached close to 90 percent of all 10-year olds.

Reading is taught by the global method involving visualization of the whole word rather than through letter-by-letter sounding. The shape of each word is memorized and the whole sound and meaning attached.

Critics are puzzled that a method other than phonetics is used since Spanish is an accurately phonetic language, but Mexican teachers and administrators claim that 80 to 90 percent of the first graders entering in September know how to read by January. And hence this same method is used both in literacy classes and in regular schools.

The highly regulated curriculum is uniform throughout Mexico. Monthly report cards must be signed by parents eight times a year. To enter the next grade students must pass national standardized tests in all subjects. Most study hard in order to be promoted.

In Tijuana's inner city region of eight elementary schools, only 7 percent of the first graders were kept back last year. According to Inspector Ramon Gutierrez, "Everything moves fast. We can't afford to be inefficient."

While students of six years race to learn how to read, across the city at a preparatory school (two years past the compulsory minimum of 10 grades) selected tuition students paying 1,500 pesos a semester specialize in vocational training or college preparatory studies.

Between a Tijuana youngster's first year in a crowded elementary school with 45 or 50 in a classroom and the privilege of preparatory school a decade later lie many struggles -- academic and economic. The drop-out rate, by US standards , is enormous.

In 1979, while 95,700 students attended grades 1-6 and 24,000 attended grades 7-9, only 4,000 were enrolled in high school and this in a city with a total population close to 800,000. Even primary school is not universally available. Although signs on Mexico City's subways read "No child can be denied the opportunity of an education," this is not always the reality. Due to bulging schools already on double session, school officials cannot enforce compulsory education.

Tijuana's explosive population growth -- doubling each decade for the last four -- makes each school desk dear. Only 71 percent of Tijuana's children between ages six and 12 were enrolled in school in 1978-79.

Tijuana is a gateway for many hopefuls on their way across the border, and an estimated 1,000 come to the city daily. Some stay. Some cross. Some return south. Some don't go to school while they negotiate.

I was told by some parents that it is customary to offer money to the principal to ensure enrollment. "Mordida" (the Spanish word for such payment of government officials), says one spokeswoman sadly, "is a way of life here."

Then, too, there are payments for uniforms, school supplies, and kindergarden.

I asked about the importance of the school uniform and Inspector Gutierrez explained, "The uniform is an educative factor.

"Students know that they cannot misbehave in the city because people can identify their school by their clothing. It dissolves social distinctions which would otherwise be apparent by each student's clothing."

For those able to enter, there are additional troubles. Although standard textbooks are provided, families must buy additional texts a teacher may require. All school supplies must be provided by the family, as well as money for drinking water.

Teachers must also provide their own supplies. At the opening of school recently one teacher was given a single box of chalk and told that when that runs out, she must buy more herself. A federal preparatory school expects new teachers to give their first month's salary for a building and furnishing program.

Nevertheless, some things don't cost money: dedication, love for children and pride in their learning. In short, corazon. And there appears to be plenty of that.

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