In Argentina's Pampa Province, where the high school dropout rate is nearly 40 percent, school officials have come up with a way to bring in parents to talk about their children's needs: Serve refreshments.
"When you fail the very children you're supposed to serve, you're impelled to try new things," says Miguel Angel Tanos, the Pampa's assistant education secretary.
Creative solutions, not just more money, lie at the heart of Latin America's new focus on one of its oldest weaknesses: education. The average child receives only five years of schooling, and without progress in the classroom, the region's recent moves to democracy and economic growth may falter.
That's why education was Topic No. 1 at the Summit of the Americas in Chile April 18 and 19.
For the United States, it's important that a stable Latin America use better education to extend prosperity to more than a small elite. And many of the problems facing Latin America - from high dropout rates to school violence - also affect the US, especially in cities with large minority populations.
Despite annual economic growth of about 4 percent in many countries, Latin America has the world's worst income disparity between the few very rich and the many very poor. "Education in Latin America is in a critical state; it's a serious problem that could endanger the other 'macro' reforms" in the region's economy and political systems, says Jeffrey Puryear, an expert on Latin American education at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.
Adds Beatrice Rangel, senior vice president at New York's Cisneros Group of Companies, "Two hundred million Latin Americans have such limited education that they cannot even access the prosperity that free markets are creating. That poses a risk not just for the region's economy, but to its democracies as well. Democracies require literate, informed citizens who feel they have a stake in the system."
Yet like the perennially failing teenager who one day shows everyone he can make the grade, Latin America's schools are showing signs of "waking up."
Part of the pressure for the awakening is coming from businesses. Old state-owned companies that lived off closed national markets didn't care much about an educated work force. Private enterprises that must compete with international competitors do. Pressure is also coming from teachers, parents, and an array of nongovernmental groups. Most Latin countries have passed the test of getting children into school, and they're doing better at keeping them there longer. But the region still suffers from students who need to repeat grades, drop out, have low test scores, and are pressured to take jobs.
Says Mexico Education Minister Miguel Limn Rojas, "We've reached the point where the focus of our effort has shifted from quantity to succeeding with quality."
"The conventional wisdom is that the problem is not money," Mr. Puryear says. "Just pouring more money in the existing system would be a waste, but ... at some point [countries] won't be able to advance enough in terms of quality without more money."
In a report aimed at leaders attending the Summit of the Americas, a group of experts promoting education reform in Latin America make four recommendations:
* Establish national testing standards and a system for measuring what children are learning.
* Give more autonomy to local schools, emphasizing creativity and involvement of parents.
* Strengthen the teaching profession. Promote incentives to teachers, both financial and training, in exchange for more accountability.
* Invest more in education. This includes directing more money to basic education instead of to higher education. The elites in many Latin countries take advantage of free public universities after having attended high-quality private schools.
Most countries are responding to some degree. Observers generally place Chile at the head of the class: It has doubled spending on education in this decade, adopting a longer school day and standardized testing. Decentralization has given Chilean schools more flexibility to meet local needs with homegrown talents
In Argentina, teachers have been on a rotating hunger strike for a year, demanding more funding for education. The carpa blanca, or white tent, they set up in front of the capitol in Buenos Aires in April 1997 has become a symbol of a profession in crisis.
Poorly paid teachers have shared in the burden of a decade of tough economic adjustment - and now they are demanding "dividends," as Ms. Rangel puts it, for their efforts.
Addressing that dissatisfaction while pushing through sometimes-controversial reforms is going to take determination and unblinking leadership, experts say.
"No matter how many dedicated teachers and successful schools one can place in the spotlight, this is not something that will be solved with sporadic success stories," Puryear says, with the leaders who assembled in Santiago in mind. "This will require sound national policy and commitment."