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Public school, privately run

By Paul Constance, Andahuaylillas, Peru

There are two elementary schools in the Peruvian village of Andahuaylillas, located high in the Andes mountains about 40 km from the ancient city of Cusco. Teachers in both schools are employed by the government and receive exactly the same salary. Students in both schools are poor, sometimes to the point of malnourishment. Many of them walk several hours each day from tiny hamlets where their Quechua-speaking parents make a meager living growing potatoes and weaving traditional alpaca textiles.

Yet in almost every other respect, the two schools are completely different. In the first one, some children manage to finish sixth grade without knowing how to read, and many of them have better attendance records than their teachers. Relations between faculty and parents are strained and sometimes openly hostile.

In the second school, children learn basic reading and writing skills by the time they finish kindergarten. They take standardized tests twice a year to monitor their academic progress. Their teachers, who are young and enthusiastic, often stay after classes to help students who need individual tutoring. An active parents’ association donates money and time to maintain and equip the classrooms, and local mothers volunteer to clean the school facilities and prepare a daily “school breakfast” for the children.

The well-performing school, known as the Colegio San Ignacio de Loyola, is part of a program administered by the Jesuit order of the Roman Catholic Church. The other school functions within Peru’s regular public education system. Indeed, the only real difference between both schools is the way they are managed.

Faith and happiness. When a small group of Jesuit priests announced plans to start a new school in this remote village some 17 years ago, some local officials were openly skeptical.

“They said, Father, don’t waste your time. It isn’t worth it. Why are you doing this?,” recalls Alfredo Ruska, the Jesuit priest who now runs Colegio San Ignacio. The implication, according to Ruska, was that the indigenous Quechua children who live in this impoverished rural area were incapable of succeeding academically.

Local parents thought differently. Frustrated by the poor quality of the public school, they approached the Catholic parish in Andahuaylillas and asked about the possibility of starting an alternative school. The situation met the requirements of “Fe y Alegría” (FyA, or Faith and Happiness), a unique public-private program in which Jesuit educators set up and administer schools in severely impoverished areas. Founded half a century ago in Venezuela by José María Vélaz, a Jesuit priest born in Chile, FyA is based on the conviction that children in the most underprivileged areas can and should have access to high-quality education. FyA works exclusively in areas where public schools are nonexistent or dysfunctional, and where local parents are willing to donate time and money to run a new school. Once it has a formal commitment from a sufficient number of parents (who must help to buy the land and donate the labor to construct the new school), FyA approaches public education officials and offers to build, equip, and operate the school, so long as the government is willing to pay teachers’ salaries. FyA also requires total administrative autonomy, starting with the power to hire teachers based on its own criteria.

This sort of public-private educational partnership, which has been practiced in Peru for decades, is now being tested in many countries, including the United States, as a way of strengthening the public education system. As such, it fits within the Peruvian government’s ongoing efforts to improve learning achievement at all publicly financed schools.

Today the FyA network serves more than 820,000 children at some 2,188 locations in 14 South American countries. All of these schools operate in the sort of settings that are usually associated with educational failure (according to a motto coined by Fr. Vélaz, FyA schools begin “where the pavement ends”). And yet Juan Carlos Navarro, chief of the Education Unit in the IDB’s Sustainable Development Department, points out that FyA schools are consistently better than public ones when it comes to retaining students and getting them to advance on time to the next grade.
 

Their schools in Peru are a case in point. “Grade repetition rates at FyA schools in Peru are less than half the average level in comparable public schools, and dropout rates nearly a third lower,” Navarro says, citing a 1998 study by Chile’s Centro de Investigación y Desarrollo de la Educación. “Moreover, the data indicate that when FyA takes over the management of a rural school, girls tend to stay in school longer and the gap between students’ age and their appropriate grade level gradually decreases.”

FyA officials at the organization’s headquarters in Venezuela have been using an IDB grant to gather information on “best practices” at FyA schools, and to explore ways of improving student evaluations and learning achievement (See link at right, “A secret worth sharing.”).

A fair comparison? Comparing public and church-run schools can be problematic, because they usually do not have the same obligations or comparable financial resources. FyA schools can tap into the formidable charitable network of the Catholic Church to raise funds for school buildings and facilities, for example. In Andahuaylillas, several of FyA’s handsome brick and concrete school buildings were paid for by a single gift from a member of the Spanish royal family.

But FyA never offers teachers more than the standard government salary, which now averages a little more than $200 per month. “We don’t pay any bonuses to our teachers,” says Ruska. And according to Navarro, research on costs indicates that FyA schools do not spend more per student than public ones; in fact, in many cases they spend less. Finally, students at FyA schools are just as poor and socially disadvantaged as their counterparts in public schools.

So it is fair to ask why a FyA school like the one in Andahuaylillas is considered so superior by local villagers that Ruska must periodically turn away parents who wish to transfer their children from the public school. (Peruvian education authorities determine the number of children that a FyA school can admit.)

Ruska claims that parents prefer FyA because they can see the difference in their children’s learning achievement. “Local parents ask themselves, ‘How come my friend’s son who goes to FyA is learning, but my son, who lives in the same village and goes to the other school, isn’t getting anywhere in his studies?’”

The principal reason, according to Ruska, is the selection and training of teachers. Given the uneven quality of the pedagogical education that aspiring teachers get at Peruvian universities, Ruska is extremely careful to hire only the brightest and most dedicated applicants. FyA then requires new teachers to undergo an extensive program of supplemental training complemented by intensive day-to-day supervision and reinforcement in the classroom (See link at right, “Why teachers love Fe y Alegría.”).

Ruska says he meets with each teacher in the school once a week to review lesson plans and discuss individual students’ progress. Since the school cannot afford to purchase textbooks, it also requires teachers to start work a month before classes, so that they can write, print and photocopy a significant part of their teaching materials.

By contrast, administrators at public schools almost never enjoy Ruska’s ability to pick and choose among teacher candidates: a more typical arrangement is for all personnel decisions to be handled by a central bureaucracy. Moreover, once a teacher is assigned to a school, Peruvian law makes it extremely difficult to dismiss him or her, even if the teacher shows consistent deficiencies. Also, teachers at public schools almost never receive the combination of close supervision, encouragement, and opportunities for ongoing study that are FyA’s trademark.
 

“Why have we succeeded here? Because we have direct administrative control,” Ruska says. “We’ve been able to pick our people, train them, and work with them day to day. I don’t import these teachers from the moon. They’re from the local peasant communities. You’ll notice that most of our teachers are young—the average age is around 30. This gives us an advantage, because younger people are still idealistic and eager to work, and we spend a lot of time helping them to develop a sense of mission about what they do.”

That sense of mission was palpable during visits to several classrooms during a busy school day at Colegio San Ignacio in 2002. Teachers were focused and animated, following detailed lesson plans that clearly engaged the children. Interviewed during recess, several apprentice and veteran teachers spoke eloquently about why they like working at a FyA school (See link at right, “Why teachers love Fe y Alegría.”).

High expectations. Intangible factors may also play a role in the success of FyA schools. Though they teach a secular curriculum that meets the Peruvian Education Ministry’s requirements, FyA schools also strive to offer what they term an “integral” education that stresses the importance of religious, ethical, and cultural values. Only a handful of the 60 schools (including two technological institutes) that FyA runs in Peru are headed by priests, but many of the laypeople who administer the schools are motivated by personal religious convictions.

FyA schools also benefit from the kind of active support from parents that is often absent in public schools. The members of parent’s associations at each school pay dues (in Andahuaylillas, these come to the equivalent of $9 per year) that are used to buy teaching materials or supplies. They volunteer their labor to build, maintain and clean school facilities, and they meet frequently with teachers to discuss their children’s progress. Since they invest so much in the school, these parents expect high standards and tend to hold teachers accountable for results, as measured by students’ test scores and grade promotions.

The IDB’s Navarro says the FyA experience offers a multitude of lessons for educators in Latin America. “FyA is a striking example of the fact that the same teachers, with the same salaries, can behave very differently in different institutional contexts,” he says.

“The principal reason for this difference seems to be FyA’s strong emphasis on teacher development, both in and outside the school, and the intensive use of tutoring and networking. They have perfected a very effective model for pedagogical support and teamwork at the school level. They also work hard to adapt schools to the particular context in which they operate, be it in degraded urban environments, isolated rural villages or indigenous communities.”

In Andahuaylillas, for example, Ruska requires all teachers to speak some Quechua, and the curriculum has been modified to include units on local cultural and religious customs.

“If education in Latin America and the Caribbean has one challenge, that is the challenge of making schools work for disadvantaged children,” says Navarro. “This is precisely the focus of the FyA model. And this is where FyA has achieved striking success. Above all, FyA’s achievements carry with them a consistent message of hope: it is indeed possible to organize schools in our countries so that they will make a difference in poor children’s lives.”