Teachers at Cristobal Coln Elementary School in Buenos Aires have decided that before they can teach their students, they must learn to understand them.
The families that entrust their children to Cristobal Coln are mostly immigrants who have left neighboring Bolivia and Paraguay for better-paying jobs in urban Argentina.
All three are Spanish-speaking countries, but linguistic differences exist - along with wide cultural differences between the rural world of the immigrants and the urban world they adopt. The mostly Indian immigrants stand out in the population of Buenos Aires, whose ancestors mostly came from Europe.
"The reality was a wall of cultural and linguistic differences," says Mirta Eva Ruiz, a first-grade special-education teacher. "The result was a lot of unsuccessful children." At one point, 20 percent of students were being held back to repeat a grade.
The teachers started with a simple step: They wrote a dictionary. Printed along with pictures and distributed to teachers and families, the dictionary became a "communication bridge" between the school and the neighborhood and won an award.
Other changes followed. The school embraced the cultures of the immigrants. Parents were encouraged to share their cuisine with teachers at school meetings. School programs featured the dress and dance of the children's native lands.
"We chose a different form of integration," says school director Alberto Pivetta, "one that let [the parents] feel they were giving something even as they learned."
Cristobal Coln was also one of 12,000 schools to share in a new multimillion-dollar fund for improving school infrastructure, teacher training, and materials. Textbooks and workbooks, which once cost extra, became free. The school received a computer room and training for teachers to use it. Only 5 percent of students now repeat a grade, and the school has been off Argentina's list of failed schools since 1996.
The improved relationship with the community receives much of the credit for the turnaround.
"Undoubtedly, the single biggest change is that we no longer make a difference between 'the Bolivians' or 'the Argentines,' " school director Pivetta says. "Now we just say 'the children.' "