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Three Strategies for Serving Underserved Students

Editor's Note: In 2016, Andrea Dinan, Service-Learning & Experiential Programs, Princeton Public Schools, was awarded a Fulbright Award for Distinguished Teaching to travel to the city of Mérida in Mexico. There she looked at ways to serve the underserved student populations that exist in both Mexico and the United States.

By guest blogger Andrea Dinan

In Mexico, although high school (grades 9-11) is compulsory, there is a lack of high schools for the existing student population. Public high schools require an entrance test plus the purchase of uniforms, books, and additional school fees. This cost is prohibitive to the average family (especially a family with several children). This, of course, is not that different from the invisible fees in our own public schools, for example: pay-to-play, instruments, extracurriculars, field trips, and enrichment programming that many of our students never experience. 

Mexico.pngWhile in Merida, I observed high school classes and interviewed groups of students and administrators at the local, state, and federal level while working with professors from the local university with the intention of learning more about the Mexican education system. My goal was to identify programming for students of de escasos recursos (low income students) with the hope of discovering new programming and ideas for my own district. There were many surprises relevant to our own schools and communities. Here are three observations of how challenges for schooling of low-income students in Mexico are being addressed and potential lessons for the United States: 

1. Providing Solutions to Barriers and Needs

Unidad Académica Bachillerato con Interacción Comunitaria (UABIC) is a high school opened by the local university in Mérida. The school was built in 2008 and is located on the southern tip of the city, far from the infrastructures of modern living.Admittance is based on family finances and education history. 

In Mexico, Mérida is considered a wealthy city, however the financial statistics of the families attending UABIC are startling. For example, of the 381 families, 203 have a floor of dirt or cement, 45 percent (93) of the families do not have a working bathroom, and 70 percent (143) of heads-of-household did not complete primary school.

The school provides students with free breakfast and lunch and dental, ophthalmology, and medical services. Uniforms are provided, and enrichment programs, including sports and arts, are offered in the afternoon. In return, the students attend a longer-than-average school day (3-4 hours after the typical 12pm dismissal). 

Additionally, all students participate in community-based activities—many take place on Saturdays or Thursday evenings. Programming is based on community needs such as replacing open-fire cooking with solar-powered ovens, vaccinations of and caring for pets, and building home gardens for fresh fruit and vegetables. Service-learning pedagogy is woven into all of the programming. The learning and experiences from real-world activities can be applied at a future place of work. The programming instills leadership abilities and builds confidence in students who have previously felt isolated and alienated from their peers. Their success is illustrated in current statistics: in the last two years, approximately 30 percent of graduated students have entered university or vocational school.

Applications for American Schools and Communities

U.S. districts can adopt a service-learning curriculum with the goal of guiding students to determine their place within a society and leading them to analyze and integrate an awareness of other persons, beliefs, cultures, and ideas. While participating in these programs, students learn important career skills such as teamwork, problem solving, and critical analysis. These skills are difficult to measure but are key to obtaining the real world global competency skills needed in the 21st century. 

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2. Returning to Tradition: Including Family and Community

Juan Carlos Mijangos Noh, professor of anthropology, is of Mayan descent and has spent most of his career studying drop-out prevention of Mayan students. Mijangos Noh was critical of the UABIC school, stating that government education, no matter how progressive, is continuing an oppressive system that separates indigenous people from their native beliefs.  

Instead, he offers a different solution to prevent students from dropping out and to address the lack of structured education available to rural (primarily Mayan) people. For four years, a small group of professors has been working in a small puebla called Canicab located outside of Mérida (pop. 758). Professors and community members planted a large-scale garden with indigenous plants and crops to address food insecurity in the town. An irrigation system (via a bike-pedaling mechanism) and a large windmill generate electricity.  

The strategy in Canicab is to make the village self-sufficient and lessen the need for families to travel the 20km to Mérida for work, groceries, and schooling. The hope is that by maintaining the village and honoring the traditional values and beliefs, they will build a community in which their youth would want to grow up and stay in to raise families.

Applications for American Schools and Communities

Districts could include new immigrant family members in meetings and programs. The inclusion of parents and community members via community meetings similar to those in Canicab could provide the needed support system for immigrants and other students of poverty attending U.S. schools. Knowing our students and welcoming their families into our schools can only improve relationships and learning. In Canicab, community members worked together to create a school that honors Mayan traditions. The community identified and addressed concerns such as education, food scarcity, and a lack of jobs. It was a slow process with many evening meetings and home visits, but it was worthwhile to include all members of the community that will utilize and support the school. As a result, supplementary education programs were created and are provided by the elders and university professors to students and adults after they complete their daily work.  

These concepts can be replicated in our own districts. Too often, new students and families are quickly lost in the business of school. Parents and guardians of underserved students cannot miss work to join a PTO meeting and may miss important information regarding schedule, events, and information regarding the supplementary resources school provide. These are the parents and families that need the most help in joining the community and creating a safety network to support their children. 

Schools can offer evening meetings with translation services. Hiring outreach coordinators or assigning a staff member that can communicate in the native languages of families, can ensure that students are not further left behind. In addition, extending partnerships with existing local agencies (such as human services and non-profits) will help ensure that information is shared. My own personal journey to learn Spanish began at a conference workshop led by a parent who had settled in Alabama after moving with her family from Mexico. The parent started her own support group and assisted other Spanish speaking families with the bureaucracy of school paperwork. Her story, the new parent perspective, inspired me to learn the language which eventually led to my Fulbright research.

3. Using Technology: A Solution for Rural Communities

Telesecundarias are a common solution for reaching the poor and rural areas of Mexico and can be found in many Latin American countries. In many cases, most specifically in rural Mexico, a tele-high school is erected allowing students of multiple ages and backgrounds to complete high school. Class content is communicated through computer and video equipment and may include a full- or part-time teacher overseeing the class.

Mococha, a small village of roughly 2,000 inhabitants, created a new high school co-located on a middle school campus. There are four teachers that work part time with the group of students (ranging from age 15-30 years old) from four nearby villages. Some of the students travel more than an hour to study but would need to travel much further to attend a state-run high school at a cost that their families could not afford. All of the students work after or before school on family farms or in shops or at tourist locations. Most of the students are children of migrant farmers. 

Applications for American Schools and Communities

Technology can be used to improve our global learning goals. It is easy to connect with experts across the country or facilitate student collaboration internationally—iEarnOut of Eden LearnPeace Corps, and Empatico are examples of organizations that can facilitate the process. Free programs such as FlipgripZoomSkype, and Google Hangouts are web based programs that allow easy communication between classrooms. (Find more organizations and platforms here.) Such experiences create new perspectives and instill critical thinking. It is only through education that we will be able to prepare students to address the global issues of poverty, inequality, and climate change, among others and to inspire students to become lifelong learners. 

Online technology can be utilized for academic work—there are academic courses available in a variety of languages, plus online options can offer extra assistance, including 1:1 tutoring (for example: Learn to Be). These programs can be used as supplements or for classroom differentiation. Many public libraries offer paid services free to local teachers and students. Platforms such as Start Sole enable students to contribute thoughtfully both inside and outside of the classroom.

These are not new ideas, but to see them first-hand, encompassing all of the tenets needed for comprehensive community programming was a transformative experience. The experience has inspired me to look for innovative ways to utilize technology and service-learning pedagogy to teach, inspire, and change the world through daily activities in our school.

Connect with Andrea, Heather, and the Center for Global Education on Twitter. 

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