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In This Rural School, High-Tech Learning Happens in Low-Tech Classrooms

Classroom without concrete floor

Salón de carrizo con piso

Salón de carrizo sin pisol

By Jesus Aguado

Surrounded by old, rickety benches and tables covered with dust, with a light bulb that hangs from an electric cord, in a classroom made of reeds gathered from the nearby river, 25 high school students from various rural communities of San Miguel de Allende recently completed their high school education, taught by in-person teachers supplemented by lessons beamed in by satellite.

Welcome to the contradictions of “tele-education” at Telebachillerato de La Huerta, a rural community satellite school made up of high school students who live in communities too remote to make attending established brick and mortar schools feasible.

Teleschools: a primer

Telesecundarias and telebachilleratos are special schools designed for remote communities with a “high-risk” lack of educational opportunities. The Universidad Virtual del Estado de Guanajuato (Virtual University of the State of Guanajuato), known as UVEG, started this education system in Guanajuato, around five years ago, in response to a growing demand for classes for students in distant communities with fewer than 2,500 residents. The Guanajuato state government funds the program, and UVEG runs it. UVEG provides classes throughout the state, with almost 13,000 students at the high-school level alone.

Secundaria is more or less the equivalent of middle school or junior high school. Bachillerato is the equivalent of high school. The tele prefix is meant to convey the idea of distance learning and the fact that the in-person teachers use a curriculum that is at least partially beamed in by satellite.

According to the UVEG website, “The benefits have been enormous for students and their families in terms of savings of time and money, a reduction in the need to traverse long distances in search of mid- and higher-level education, and, above all, the opportunity to strengthen their academic formation with a positive impact on the development of their community.”

But the Telebachillerato at La Huerta is a mix of high tech—computer labs and satellite lessons—mixed with a low-tech, one might even say deprived, learning environment. On a daily basis, Telebachillerato de La Huerta uses humble, makeshift classrooms made out of plastic and of the same reeds that artisans in the community use to weave baskets.

The school at La Huerta

The rural community of La Huerta is popular for its microclimate, created by the gardens and orchards close to the Laja River, as well as for its basket weavers. Ceremonial tortillas are still made by hand here.

Students from many other communities around La Huerta come to this school—from the towns of Soria, El Batán, Presa Allende, Los Martínez, and Rinconcillo. During our visit, the academic community of Telebachillerato de la Huerta had 60 students.

In the town of La Huerta, children can attend preschool through primary grades in regular brick-and-mortar schools, but there are no brick-and-mortar secundaria or bachillerato or preparatoria schools (preparatoria is also equivalent to high school). However, thanks to the school at La Huerta, which opened to telesecundaria students in 2005 and began educating bachillerato students in 2014, primaria students can go on to finish their education all the way through high school at a reasonable distance from home.

The telesecundaria and telebachillerato schools use the same building. However, it was not constructed with enough classrooms for both schools because the bachillerato classes opened years after the secundaria classes. It is for this reason that the bachillerato families decided to build two makeshift classrooms themselves.

Unsanctioned

The land occupied by the telesecundaria and telebachillerato also has a history. It was donated by ejidatorios (shareholders of common land). In spite of the fact that the residents themselves later “stole” almost half of the space, the school was built. According to the UVEG, the telesecundaria building has three classrooms, a computer room, a mobile classroom, an office, two air-conditioned spaces, basketball courts, a surrounding fence, furniture shared by both schools, and bathrooms. However, students told Atención that the computer rooms were built with donations from parents, and that they are not sanctioned by UVEG.

“If they tell us that it has to come down, well, so be it,” said one student. Only one room in the school is made of brick and concrete, said the students; the rest are made of other materials, which school personnel said makes the building “very hot.”

The mobile classroom, made of plastic, is also very hot, say personnel at the school. “It was [originally] in the community of Charco de Sierra, and later they brought it here. It’s full of holes, and is cold in winter and hot during the summer,” said one staff member who asked to remain anonymous.

From the mobile classroom, one can get a view of one of the two reed classrooms built alongside the school by the students and their families in response to a need for more spaces for the bachillerato students. That classroom’s door is made of wood pieces affixed together. To lock it, one needs to use a chain and padlock. Inside, it has a dirt floor. A blackboard hangs in a corner facing old, chipped, dirty benches. A cable not inspected by Protección Civil (Public Safety Department) climbs along the wall to the ceiling. From it hangs a bare light bulb.

As the road is only about 15 meters away, when one is in the classroom, one can hear cars passing as well as music, people whistling, and singing from neighboring houses. The wind and dust come through the spaces between the reeds. The rain is very noisy, said the students who spoke with us. The worst thing, they added, is when the water leaks through and the dirt inside becomes mud.

“The government turns their back on us.”

Students feel a complicated mixture of pride, gratitude, and resentment about their deprived school environment—gratitude for their teachers’ dedication, pride in the fact that they and their families helped build much of their existing school, and resentment that they felt they had to do so.

Atención spoke with four students who chose to use pseudonyms about their experiences using the reed classrooms.

San Juana, who graduated this year, is proud to have completed high school and now wants to work in a restaurant, study English and cooking, and get a business degree. Another student, Sandra, remembered how classmates and their parents united to build the classrooms because the telebachillerato’s classes started at 2 pm, and the telesecundaria students didn’t leave until 4pm.

“I remember that we went to the river, cut down reeds, cleaned them, and cut and made them even so that our parents could build this room,” she said.

Another student, Carmela, recalled how the telebachillerato students and their families built a concrete floor for the other reed classroom. They approached people in the nearby communities to ask for items to raffle off to raise money.

“Everyone supported us,” she said. “With that, we bought the panels to separate one room from the other so you would not hear the other classes, and we also bought the material for the floor.”

She remembered the day when they started the work: “The men helped with the heavy work; they made the mix. We, the girls, made the food and helped in what we could.”

Berenice, also a recent graduate, admitted that finishing high school “has been difficult because of the noise. But with classmates, it becomes cozy. The structures are not comfortable…[but] I feel proud of having studied in a reed classroom. We try hard. When we put in the flooring, we all helped. It was fun work.”

One student, also a graduate, said studied in the reed classrooms while pregnant.

“These structures are not decent,” she said. “We are not bad students; neither are our teachers [bad]. They provide quality education, and we don’t just care for them as our teachers but as our parents and friends, because they’ve given us their support, advice, and guidance. They don’t deserve this. They deserve decent structures.

“Our future classmates don’t deserve these structures. Not everyone can tolerate it. I’m not happy leaving this for my classmates, more so because I have brothers coming [to the school],” she said.

“This is not a structure to be proud of,” added San Juana, “but [I am proud for] having been here and having worked on it.”

She wanted the photo we took of her to be posed with her back turned because, as she said to us, “The government turns their back on us all the time.”

UVEG: We care for quality education

Atención went to UVEG officials to ask why telebachillerato students are functioning under such conditions. We were told that after 4pm, the high school students could use the conventional telesecundaria classrooms. When we brought up the two-hour gap that forced those students into the makeshift classrooms, UVEG officials said that those students have workshops and other subjects between 2 and 4pm that don’t necessarily need to be given in a classroom and could take place in the air-conditioned spaces or outdoors.

It should be said that the telebachillerato students hold their workshops in the makeshift spaces because they must, but then remain there for subsequent classes even though they could move to the telesecundaria’s rooms, because they feel a sense of ownership of the classrooms they built themselves. But they also point out that UVEG officials came to inspect the school various times and found out that the students were using those rooms and not the classrooms for their regular classes even when they were available. The students say that UVEG knows the conditions in which the students are studying and that their conditions exist because UVEG would not help with building more infrastructure.

Atención requested information from UVEG. In an interview with Director of Telebachilleratos Jesús Marmolejo, we asked why UVEG has not constructed conventional classrooms for the students of La Huerta. Marmolejo told us that bylaws of the telebachilleratos program, created by the Federal Secretariat of Public Education, state that telebachillerato students and professors should use the telesecundarias’ infrastructure. Marmolejo also stated that there is no money for the construction of new infrastructure in the UVEG’s budget.

If there is regular supervision of the school, we asked, why has UVEG allowed teachers and students at La Huerta to use the makeshift classrooms? Marmolejo’s answer was not clear, but he said that UVEG promotes the use of the classrooms belonging to the telesecundaria for academic work and allows the use of facilities like those the families built at La Huerta for workshops and other noncurricular activities.

He also remarked that the professors, students and parents were aware of the conditions at the beginning of the school year. There does exist a budget for improvements at the school for the next 2019–2020 school year, he said.

“There is constant supervision,” he said. “We monitor the quality of education and that teachers are present. The parents have different projects, smaller works or sports complements. Of course they have given their input and these are spaces used for particular activities.”

Atención requested information from UVEG. In an interview with Director of Telebachilleratos Jesús Marmolejo, we asked why UVEG has not constructed worthy classrooms for the students of La Huerta. Marmolejo told us that bylaws of the telebachilleratos program, created by the Federal Secretariat of Public Education, state that telebachillerato students and professors should use the telesecundarias’ infrastructure. Marmolejo also stated that there is no money for the construction of new infrastructure in the UVEG’s budget.

If there is permanent supervision of the school, we asked, why has UVEG allowed teachers and students at La Huerta to use the makeshift classrooms? Marmolejo’s answer was not clear, but he said that UVEG promotes the use of the classrooms from the telesecundaria for academic work and allows the use of facilities like those the families built at La Huerta for workshops and other noncurricular activities.

He also remarked that the professors, students and parents were aware of the conditions at the beginning of the school year. There does exist a budget for improvements at the school for the next 2019–2020 school year, he said, but he did not specify.

 

 

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