High School Diploma Programs in Argentina: Learning on the Move

Source: Americas Program

Thirty high school diploma programs are in progress in refurbished factories and neighborhoods where unemployment groups are still in operation. They serve adults that were not able to complete their secondary education, testifying to the fact that the cycle of protest has not ended, although its forms and methods of action have changed.

On the Pan American highway, it is about 30 kilometers from the center of Buenos Aires to a sign on the right side of the road that says “Henry Ford Ave.” The car exits the highway onto a large asphalt road: on the right is Kraft Foods, to the left is the impressive Ford plant, and a little further along is Volkswagen. Are we in Argentina? Passing by the Kraft Foods plant, it is necessary to reflect on the long strike caused by the firings of about 50 workers that the company hoped would break the workers’ assembly.

After passing a traffic light, we make another right turn and find ourselves in a neighborhood of squat houses and dirt roads. It is called Las Tunas, very close to Tigre where the Paraná opens up into an enormous fan-shaped delta and its golden waters caress the willows that spread out over the river. The settlement is quite different from those to the south of the city as the homes have much surrounding space.

Las Tunas started seeing settlements in the 1970s but it experienced a population boom in the 90s as emigration from the northeast saw the arrival of Paraguayans and Bolivians who were driven from their countries by neoliberal reforms. They heard that there were several large factories in the area and hoped to change their luck working in industry. Today there are 30-40,000 inhabitants in an area that takes up less than 170 acres, although the census does not cover the neighborhood.

Sixty percent of those under the age of five do not attend school as there is just one preschool with 400 children. The one health center does not have the means to attend to the various illnesses caused by the water that is contaminated with arsenic from the two paper mills and two refrigeration plants. Unemployment and under-employment rates are at more than 50%. In two out of every three homes, the mothers provide the only source of income.1 The land was settled on and the houses built by the families themselves, as is the case in many areas of the periphery of Buenos Aires.

Simón Rodríguez and Popular Education

We walk along the dirt roads that have been flooded by recent rain and are bordered by ditches where waste collects due to the fact that Las Tunas does not have a sewer system. We arrive at a shed that has been divided into four rooms. The walls are made of plastered cinder block, with a roof of sheet metal and a concrete floor. The initial insecurity—the kids tell us they built the space—gives way to the impression of an austere but solid building. “My mother isn’t happy with her job,” is written on the blackboard. Every high school must teach another language, and the majority opts for English.

A woman of about 40 years old proudly shows us a sign collectively created by the class that bears one of the basic principles of the high schools: “Do not teach someone how to build roads, teach them how to walk first.” That is why the three-year high school diploma assembly, where some 90 people from the neighborhood study, decided to name the school Simón Rodríguez in homage to the teacher of Simón Bolivar, who many consider the precursor to popular education.

The project was started by a group of high school and university students who were working toward adult literacy with lower income sectors of the population in 2004. At the beginning they gave classes in a chapel until they moved to the current location that was originally a garbage dump. “The commitment made is that teachers are not paid until the government pays us a salary some day,” says Juan.2 The 30 high schools that fall under the Intramural Coordination have around 3,000 students and 350 teachers. Eleven high schools have already been made “official.” In other words, the students receive the same diplomas that those at official schools do.

In principle, each high school encompasses the same subjects and minimum content as a secondary school for adults as well as having a duration of three years. But it is also linked to social movements; in general, occupied factories and unemployment groups. One of the major differences is that they appeal to the idea of popular education that is a badge of honor among those who receive the diploma. In Las Tunas the fourth generation to attend the school has graduated. Each year some 40 people register for each class but only about 20 remain because they cannot turn down jobs that come their way.

They encounter a great many problems for which there are no solutions. “First they are given education training to see how they work in a classroom, above all how we deal with those who attend and those who do not, how to transform a traditional school into a popular school, and that was converted to political coordination,” says Juan. “We teachers undergo 15 years of formal training, but on this path we must continually modify that training. It’s a daily task. Everything that happens in the neighborhood enters into the classroom and the classroom takes in everything that goes on in the neighborhood. But we aren’t always able to make everything conform to the ideals of popular education. Many times we end up reproducing a more classic style of education, and that leads to many conflicts and contradictions within the high school. There is tension between the courses and the teacher—good and bad,” admits Juan.

Rosanna, a 40-year-old student from the neighborhood, says that she started to come on her son Sebastian’s insistence. “He told me that this was different, that the teachers listen to you, because I work and I have my problems and in many places where I have studied before, they don’t understand you. In another school, I said I couldn’t buy a book and they told me that I would lose my place in the course. I am a domestic worker and I couldn’t buy it because my son needed a lot of medication. Here we all help each other out and now I realize that my son was right. There are mothers who bring their children with them—there is a lot of tolerance, a lot of understanding.”

“My first day,” says Marisel, who is already a grandmother, “it was kind of chaotic, I wanted to leave. I didn’t finish school, I just completed one quarter. I had to leave because of personal problems and my studies were put on hold. I came to get a diploma but I ended up staying. Now I participate in the assemblies.” The first few days she encountered reluctance from home. Her husband did not like having to cook while she was studying. “Now he comes with me and even helps me with homework, but my son and my granddaughter encourage me the most.”
Classes are held Tuesday through Friday and once a month they hold an assembly in which both teachers and students participate. The cleaning and general maintenance are shared by everyone and there are no rules. Even the most arduous debates, such as those surrounding the lack of attendance, are decided on in a collective manner. Ricki, a tall young man with a dark complexion and a generous smile, always ready to work with cement says, “In constructing the building a commission was created and we began Saturdays of solidarity. In the first year just one classroom was built. Later we got the money to employ two people to continue building. There were neighbors that knew more about construction, women worked, and we learned a lot from the participation of neighbors who knew something about the work.

Private Neighborhoods: The Poor are Closely Watched

A walk through the neighborhood is an almost obligatory ritual for the visitor that the hosts enthusiastically encourage. We stop in front of one of the houses that hosts an altar to Gauchito Gil with the requisite red flags.3 The religious fervor of the woman of the house does not impede her activism with the Popular Firewatchers Organization, an activist group of which many students are members.4 They say that they tried to organize a community garden but the soil is very rocky having been filled with rubble which makes it hard to turn the soil.

Ricki explains that he was born in the neighborhood and has watched it grow. “Fifteen or 20 years ago there was nothing. It was all water and empty land that the community members filled up. Many of them are from here but on the other side of the stream there are Paraguayans and Bolivians. The people work in construction and the women do domestic work, many in Nordelta. They build sinks in the summer or take care of the sick.5

Laura assures me that there are 10 cafeterias in the neighborhood. “The majority are from the church and a few are financed by Nordelta which has a foundation for social work here.” Speaking of Nordelta, we walk to the edge of the neighborhood where there is a long cement wall that is a few meters tall with an electrified fence that separates the poor of Las Tunas from Nordelta, the largest private neighborhood in South America. In the distance there are palm trees, large buildings, and extensive green areas, and even further away you can make out the houses. A large water purification system sits close to the wall contrasting with the 12 taps that provide the 40,000 inhabitants of Las Tunas with contaminated water.

It is impossible to avoid reflecting on the wall that separates Israel and Palestine, not just because of the wall itself but because we are surrounded by a dozen children, poorly clothed and malnourished, that gaze suspiciously at the cement wall that impedes their path, view, and freedom to cross it and observe the opulence. Nordelta is a 1,600 hectare neighborhood that is home to 12,000 people and has 200 hectares of lakes and mirror pools, golf courses, swimming pools, soccer fields, a shopping center with supermarkets, a promenade with restaurants and bars, churches, four private schools, and a medical center. Someone born in Nordelta can spend his whole life there without ever having to cross the wall.

There are two access gates; one exits onto the highway, and those entering are registered and taped as the entire perimeter is equipped with radar, cameras, and surveillance. “The complex does not allow the people to do whatever they want. On the contrary, all of the homeowners are subject to all kinds of regulations including things as varied as the height of fences or the time of day when one can take out the trash,” commented a resident to the daily paper, La Nación.6

Many residents in Las Tunas have worked in Nordelta in construction, domestic work, and other services. “They make you enter in a line from 5 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. and you have to move around in buses that you have to pay for and they put up screens so that the residents won’t see the workers. They don’t allow you to walk and you have to show papers in order to enter. It’s a security control that sometimes takes more than an hour. You are practically prohibited from speaking to people in the neighborhood,” says Ricki, who worked for a time in construction. When asked about the Nordelta Foundation the response is emphatic: “They do charity work, not solidarity.”

The Nordelta Foundation is presented as an institution dedicated to helping the poor, though it only works with the residents of Las Tunas on the other side of the “wall of shame.” Each of the homeowners of Nordelta is obliged to contribute a monthly fee that is included in regular expenses. The foundation has contributed to the neighborhood, financing the high school diploma program and donating health and educational materials. It is interesting to note the effort to get the details of how the poor live and think. In 2006 the foundation published a “Study of the Needs and Observations on the Area,” in which two professionals carried out a complete and thorough analysis of Las Tunas.

The work includes 100 surveys, 25 interviews with key informants, and six intense workshops to get to know the neighborhood. They lasted three months and revealed many details, such as the socioeconomic conditions of the inhabitants, the amount of time they had lived there, whether or not they owned property, in addition to more subjective information such as the level of participation in activities and social organizations, participation in decision making within the neighborhood, and innumerable opinions on daily life, including how they felt about their “neighbors” in Nordelta.

It is surprising, and an outrage, that the Nordelta Foundation has more information about the inhabitants of Las Tunas than the government. Additionally, they were able to work for three months in the neighborhood, entering the homes of the residents, asking questions, checking many things so that the leaders of Nordelta, where the social circle that leads Argentina lives, have a clear understanding the of the poor neighborhood, where businesses recruit their workers. But the inhabitants of Las Tunas cannot do the same in Nordelta: they are the objects of the study, but they are not permitted to know anything about those who study them.

It is an asymmetric relationship founded in distance and suspicion, but one that permits the use of the “suspicious ones” as a labor force. “They say that there are thieves in Las Tunas and that is why they put up the walls. In 2001, when the looting of the supermarkets took place because people were hungry, they were afraid that the people would invade the country club and they circulated pamphlets on how to protect yourself, that looks as if they were produced by the Mossad,” states Ricki.

Learn (and be Taught) by those Affected

One of the most disturbing issues is what happens in the classroom. Almost all of the students have spent at least a year in state or religious schools but had to leave due to the need to work or, more commonly, in order to avoid feeling humiliated. Material is passed around the circle and the questions induce a deluge of words between the 20 members of the high school diploma program. “When I saw the teachers working, with feet and hands covered in material I couldn’t believe it. I had never seen teachers working and definitely not in construction. When we saw how much love they put into it, it made us want to keep coming,” says Rossana.

Marisel continues, “At the beginning we thought those guys were crazy, what were they looking for here? Later we saw that they are very warm people and they are concerned about what happens to us, but we aren’t used to that.”

“It surprised me as well,” interjects Ricki with an ironic smile. “At the beginning I saw them as good people, maybe because I come from a religious family.”

In a more serious tone, Rossana reflects on her personal experience. “In other schools they teach you and if you don’t learn it’s because you weren’t paying attention. Here the teachers explain things to you, they come up to you, sit at the table with the students, explain things as much as necessary, they accompany you, if you come in late they talk to you, while in other schools, if you come late you aren’t allowed to enter.”

– Who is the main person in the classroom? I ask.

– Everyone, says Rossana.

– Everyone, they all say.

– There is an answer for the ideas we bring in. It’s not “shut up because you don’t think like everyone else.” I work in the chapel and there are differences when talking about God, but nobody tells me to shut up. There is a lot of respect, and we all contribute, not just the teacher. The class is built by everyone …Marisel ends with this sentence that floats on the air, as if to give us time to take it in.

From a corner, Lucia tries to overcome her shyness. “Before, I went to a government school and I left, it was very hard. Here they give classes even if only one person shows up. In the other school three of us went one day to the high school in Nordelta and the teacher told us that she couldn’t teach the class for just three of us, and she sent us home.” For those who must make a great effort to attend the high school diploma program, knowing that the teachers will always be there is a major reassurance. “In addition to the subjects, we learn to share and respect and listen to others. We learn to see things we never saw before. The school is a part of me. When I can’t come I miss it. It is a relief to come. It is my second family,” states Lucia.

The principle difference with other initiatives is how they resolve problems. Instead of suspending the course due to lack of attendance, the students can make up what they have missed by integrating it into their work. As is the case in all high school diploma programs, the issue of attendance is the most complex and causes the most conflicts, together with grades. “Here we learn to walk,” says Rosanna. “We work in groups a lot, we sit around the table, go around and everyone works together. The teachers do too. We are graded in each subject and they tell us how we are working and what we lack. Grading is a debate that results in either approval or disapproval. They don’t tell you what you have done wrong but what you are lacking. Everything is discussed, opinions are given, we talk a lot, and in this way they help you continue on.”

Alejandra remembers that the previous year a boy got involved in drugs. The group tried to decide what to do about it because he was a good classmate. “When he left we talked about it, he was reincorporated, and we gave him tests because we knew that if we left him behind he would never get better. He was medicated and he couldn’t write, we helped him and now he is getting through it. It’s good thing that he has not been excluded.”

In the end, they seem to be talking about a way of teaching those who are often victims. Rosanna describes something similar when she reflects on the closeness, physical and spiritual, of the teacher: “No teacher ever sat next to me to explain something I didn’t understand. They tell you, ‘You aren’t paying attention’ and they wipe the blackboard. Here they come to you and no one leaves without understanding the subject. They teach you to learn. Last year I had an operation on my leg and they offered to come to my house to teach me and give me the lessons.”
On the weekends the teachers spend even more time in the neighborhood. They are dedicated to supporting the children, they go to the students’ homes to help out with whatever needs doing and not always in relation to the high school diploma program, because life is not simply about school education. “That presence is very important. In other schools they quickly exclude you,” says one student, echoing the opinion of all the others.

End Notes

1. Fundación Nordelta, ob. cit. p. 18.
2. Group interview in Las Tunas.
3. Gauchito Gil is a popular religious figure in Argentina. For more information (in Spanish) see: www.santogauchitogil.com.ar/ or www.sanlamuerte.net/Gauchito.htm or in Wikipedia.
4. See: www.opfogoneros.com.ar/.
5. Group interview in Las Tunas.
6. La Nación, Oct. 19, 2009.

Translated for the Americas Program by Monica Wooters.

Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for Brecha of Montevideo, Uruguay, lecturer and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to several social groups. He writes the monthly “Zibechi Report” for the Americas Program (www.americasprogram.org).

To reprint this article, please contact americas@ciponline.org This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Elda Marchesotti and Susana Said, “Study of the Needs and Observations on the Area,” Fundación Nordelta, 2006.

El Machete, No. 3, education magazine, June 2009, Frente Popular Darío Santillán, Buenos Aires.

Fundación Nordelta: www.fundacionnordelta.org/.

Nordelta: http://www.nordelta.com/.

Raúl Zibechi, Group interviews with teachers and students of the Simón Bolívar Popular High School, Las Tunas (Buenos Aires), Oct. 24, 2009.
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