Mexico’s Schools Can’t Keep Up

Times Staff Writer

Jorge Alvarado’s two-mile walk to middle school takes him through the Dumping Ground of the Dead. The ravine on the city’s eastern fringes is named for the 15 bodies, mostly victims of this town’s drug wars, that have turned up there in recent years.

His parents are terrified that he’ll stumble across a corpse on his way to school or, worse, witness a killing. But he goes anyway -- except during rainy season, when the ravine’s unpaved paths can become an impassable bog.

The 14-year-old runs the gantlet because he has no choice. The government cannot afford to build a middle school near his home in Colonia Planicie, one of the poorest slums of a city growing so fast it is said to be spreading five acres a day.


“I tried to get into another school that is closer and has a library and a playing field, but there was no room,” Jorge said as he and friends played soccer in the smelly, garbage-strewn ravine one day last month as the new term was starting.

Jorge’s neighborhood is at ground zero of an educational crisis that is tearing at Mexico’s social fabric and economy. Dire shortages of schools, teachers and government funds, especially acute in Tijuana and other fast-growing border cities, have left Mexico lagging behind much of the developed world in learning and are contributing to plagues such as drug addiction and crime.

The crisis also has implications for Southern California and the rest of the United States; illegal immigration is at least partly driven by parents’ desire to give their children better educational opportunities.

Mexico’s educational problems have several ugly facets, none more alarming than the high dropout rate at grade levels such as Jorge’s. Roughly 10% of those who finish elementary school never complete middle school, either because their parents can’t afford to send them, they drop out to take jobs, or there is simply no place for them.

“There is a bottleneck in the system,” said Eduardo Velez Bustillo, education section manager for Latin America for the World Bank in Washington. “Quality is bad at every level, but middle school is a crisis point because that’s where the demand is highest.”

Although Mexico has made significant strides in recent years in increasing overall enrollment and public investment in education, the country still trails other developed nations in most educational proficiency standards.

In a standardized global evaluation test called the PISA, Mexican ninth-graders placed 34th among the 41 nations participating in the exam and last among the 28 member nations in the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation. The multinational agency monitors economic policy among the world’s most developed nations.

Other measures, including student hours in class, show Mexico as an underachiever.

The country is paying a price. Its dysfunctional educational system, along with corruption, lack of innovation and weak rule of law, has helped make it increasingly less competitive on the global stage, meaning it is likely to attract less foreign investment and generate less trade in the future, said Eduardo Andere Martinez, a Mexico City researcher and author.

“I see a significant deterioration in competitiveness in Mexico’s future,” said Andere, a professor of international studies at Mexico City’s Autonomous Technological Institute. “In social terms, that means more poverty, more insecurity and more inequality.”

Some say the social costs of a poor educational system are already obvious in Tijuana. Drug addiction rates, especially among women, are higher in Tijuana than any other city in Mexico, said Jorge Ramos, a former Tijuana city councilman and unsuccessful mayoral candidate in last month’s election.

The rate of violent crime per capita here is also the highest of any Mexican city, partly because of a shortage of high schools. Colonia Mariano Matamoros, which borders Planicie, is short four high schools to educate the 6,000 youths who must either travel to neighboring districts or cram into existing schools. Some have dropped out of the system altogether. “That makes teenage youths susceptible to mischief,” Ramos said.

Parents in Colonia Planicie and Ciudad Juarez, another border city, are painfully aware that the country’s educational shortcomings threaten their children’s future. Many moved north for jobs at maquiladoras, the low-paying manufacturing plants that have sprung up in Mexican border towns, to escape grinding poverty and secure better futures for their families.

“We want better lives for our children, not the conditions of backwardness, poverty and ignorance that we live in now. Education is the basis of progress,” Colonia Planicie parent Narcisco Velasco said.

He has sent his two teenagers to live with their grandparents in Mexico City, where public middle schools are better.

Other parents in Colonia Planicie have assumed what in many countries would be the government’s responsibility -- building their own schools and maintaining them. The neighborhood built and paid for its own elementary school five years ago and got the government to send the teachers.

Some parents are standing up to the government -- and paying the price. This month, police arrested 18 parents in the neighborhood’s latest protest over inadequate schools.

But government officials responsible for public infrastructure can’t cope with Tijuana’s population growth -- estimated at 70,000 new residents, or 5.9%, a year, three times the growth of the rest of Mexico. The country is stretched, but especially in Tijuana, making demands for new schools and other public services nearly impossible to fill.

In Ciudad Juarez, where high population growth has also overwhelmed the educational system, 40 schools are under construction to meet mushrooming demand, said Alfredo Aguirre Carrete, Chihuahua state’s director of basic education for the northern region. But they aren’t enough. Subdivisions are being built so fast, the state can’t supply enough teachers, he said.

“A good example is a subdivision called Los Arcos, where 1,200 houses have been built since February. People bought houses seeing a school on the subdivision plan, but encountered a different reality,” Aguirre said. “The houses went up so fast there wasn’t time to present a list of students, which is a requirement for any new school to be built.”

“So there wasn’t time to get a school approved before the new year, and so for the time being children are walking two miles to another school -- something parents aren’t happy about in this time of insecurity,” Aguirre said.

As in Tijuana, parents in even the poorest neighborhoods of Ciudad Juarez typically raise their own funds for all public school improvements and maintenance. Parents at Escuela Manuel Ramos Arispe somehow manage to raise $10,000 a year to keep it maintained and equipped in a neighborhood riven by vandalism and gang violence, principal Andres Hernandez said.

In Ciudad Juarez’s Anapra suburb, a colonia of 25,000 people that has materialized in the high desert almost overnight, parents built an elementary school using two abandoned buses for classrooms.

Elaine Hampton, a University of Texas-El Paso professor who studies cross-border education, said that in the absence of Mexican government resources, the foreign-owned maquiladora factories should help finance schools in the areas where their workers live.

“Maquiladoras are causing these population shifts, and so are contributing to the lack of educational infrastructure. But I only found minimal contributions” by the factories’ management, Hampton said. Some factory managers counter that they make it possible for workers to complete course work for their high school degrees or further their technical education while on the job.

In Colonia Planicie, neighbors are prepared to build a new middle school themselves if the state of Baja California will promise to staff it with teachers. But the government has refused, saying the neighborhood’s population is too small.

The government has countered with an offer to build a telesecondaria, something typically built in isolated, often indigenous communities in southern Mexico or in mountainous areas where teacher access is slight. Satellite programming airs on video monitors. Forty minutes of on-air instruction is followed by 20 minutes of discussion led by a docent.

The Mexican government -- backed up by World Bank studies -- insists that the telesecondarias are as effective as traditional schools.

But the parents of Colonia Planicie are having none of it.

“All we ask is that the government send us certified teachers,” said Soledad Perez, a mother of three elementary school students. “We will do the rest.”

Perez was interviewed before the parental protest this month as she took her turn standing vigil in front of the site where the state proposes building the telesecondaria.

The parents formed a human chain to keep construction crews out in July and have also demonstrated in front of the state government building in Tijuana for a new middle school.

But the state’s patience ended Sept. 6, when parents again blocked a construction crew. Club-wielding police arrived and carted 18 parents off to jail for impeding construction. They were released two days later.

“People are in pain,” parent Velasco said of his neighbors, many of whom were nursing wounds they said were caused by police rough-handling. “But we are not giving up.”