By Laura Sumner Coon – Afternoon heat baked the concrete shell that posed as a gathering place for the little town of Oliveros, Guatemala. Dust swirled at the feet of more than 100 students and their parents who crowded the doorway of Nari’s home, which also serves as the local watering hole.
Parents patiently waited, babies squirming in their arms. Students nervously chattered with their friends, trying to hide their anxiety as their report cards and applications flapped in the occasional breeze.
This is an annual event, when the Americans come to decide on the “becas” for the new school year, which typically starts in January. But this year was exceptional. The hope for a scholarship to junior high or high school more than doubled this year, and the wait was long.
In Oliveros, a small agricultural village in Santa Rosa, students attend public school until Grade 6. But if they wish to continue school to junior high or high school, most need assistance. They have no transportation to Chiquimulilla, where the upper-grade schools are located nearly a half-hour drive from their homes. They also have no money for books or uniforms.
Jeannine Desautels of Madison discovered this fact about eight years ago on her first medical mission to the area with Rotary Clubs from Southeastern Wisconsin. Jeannine asked a young patient what grade he was going to attend that year. The boy answered that he would be working in the sugar cane fields since his family depended upon his income and school cost too much money.
Disheartened by his answer, Jeannine asked local parents how much it would cost to provide transportation, books and uniforms to a child wishing to continue his or her education. A whopping $160 was the answer. With that, Jeannine created the Oliveros Scholarship Fund, awarding students who applied the opportunity for a beca, a scholarship.
This year, 32 students were required to meet with Jeannine and her board. They needed to show a passing report card and demonstrate their desire to continue studying in order to retain their becas. Other students lined the hallway at Nari’s, hoping to be among the 28 other fortunate students who would be chosen for the new school year. In all, the Fund would support 60 students at $160 for the year. Two high school graduates were also awaiting word to know whether they would get a $5,000 university scholarship, which they did.
As the American team left Guatemala, they learned for the third consecutive year that teachers were on strike and did not start the school year as scheduled. The source of the strike was the same as it was in years past – there was no promise of textbooks, papers and pencils with which to conduct classes. Teachers were holding out for the government to provide the tools they needed to teach. Likely, as in past years, the government would finally give in to more provisions, though sparse, and the teachers would return to their classrooms.
As talk here bubbles about academic accountability and the discourse about how to improve our imperfect education system becomes heated, it seems to me we should take a breath and see the world from a fresh perspective. Yes, things are imperfect. Yes, education – particularly for our most vulnerable children – must improve. But we are the fortunate ones, who live in a country that requires education for all children and seeks to provide it.
Others look toward the day when that, too, might be in their future.