A Discussion with Maria Lucu y Nava and Roxana Lovera Villarroel, Multi-Service Educational Center (CEMSE), La Paz, Bolivia

July 27, 2012

Background: As part of the Education and Global Social Justice Project, in July 2012 undergraduate student Lisa Frank interviewed Roxana Lovera Villarroel, education coordinator, and Maria Lucu y Nava, national coordinator of planning and programs, of the Multi-Service Educational Center (CEMSE) in La Paz, Bolivia. In this interview they discuss their work with schools to promote inclusion and entrepreneurship, how they provide basic health services through schools, and training teachers to incorporate the values of democracy and gender equality into their work. They also noted their focus on increasing students' and women's participation in local school boards.

What does CEMSE do?

Maria Lucu y Nava: We provide health and educational services for the surrounding populations through the public schools. The children are, for the most part, kids of people who have come to work in this area, and they live on the hillsides or in El Alto, so it's a population without resources. This center was born to offer some services they would not otherwise have, such as the laboratory [and] classroom support for children to complete their homework here. If not, they would need to do it in the streets because their parents are street vendors.

From that starting point, the center has been generating different programs, such as support classes to assist children with learning difficulties in primary and secondary school. We also offer laboratories for chemistry, physics, and biology because there aren’t any in the public schools. We have communication and computing services, where young people come, at very low cost, to find information. Finally, we have a library and student health services.

We are now in La Paz, El Alto, and Sucre, where we have a focus on local development. In these 25 years we have been generating materials from the experiences and work we do with students, teachers, and parents.

Roxana Lovera Villarroel: Like Maria said, we mainly work with school communities: students, teachers, and parents. While working in services, we also work in projects aimed at improving the quality of education. One of the important projects is called "Democracy and Gender Equity." In this project, the aim was to work towards a democratic climate in classrooms. A diagnosis determined that there were issues of participation, communication, and discrimination in schools. From this, we generated materials that are called learning modules. Strategies are based on the curriculum areas, i.e. math, language, communication. Teachers develop their own materials, but besides teaching their area, they insert the cross-cutting issues of democracy and gender equality. What they do in the classroom is to promote greater participation of the students, so that you not only have a better climate in the classroom, but also gradually eliminate these factors of exclusion and discrimination.

We’ve also been working on the issue of inclusive education. We come at it from the perspective of multiculturalism, equity, and the exercise of human rights, always trying to create strategies and innovations that make these educational communities models for success. We aim for schools where there’s greater participation, where elements of the students’ own cultures are introduced, where there is less inequality between men and women, and where students and teachers will take ownership of the exercise of human rights.

Another important project is entrepreneurship. This arises from the need to develop, first, in the students skills that have to do with entrepreneurship. We know that often the only options for students are universities. But in these universities, very few students have access, especially from the public schools and rural areas where we work. And if they do go, only a small percentage manages to complete their studies. They get frustrated. So, you need to develop other skills such as entrepreneurship, to make students also have a life plan that’s not only directed towards higher education, but one that allows them to see other options for personal growth, leisure, and other ways to generate revenue and continue studying. This material we have is called "The Life Project and Entrepreneurship." As Maria said, our materials come out of the work we do with teachers and students. We try to systematize our experiences, so that other teachers may apply them.

Can you talk more about the process of working with schools? How is your relationship with them?

Lucu y Nava: We are not a school; we are an educational resource center. We’re in contact with different educational units, and they voluntarily agree to work within our programs on an alternative schedule that it is not during the regular school day. What we don’t do is repeat what’s being done in the schools. We complement the services they don’t have, like entrepreneurship strategies, health education, democratic values, and gender equality. We include the cross-cutting themes in what they are doing at school already, to try to harmonize these components.

How do the health programs function?

Lucu y Nava: We have a specific program for school health. When we have funding for a particular project, we can cover more people. Through a project, for example, we might cover 5,000 children, but without one, it might be 1,400. We schedule the kids for a medical examination at the center here. We review their medical and dental care and produce a report for parents detailing the problems their kids might have. Some come back, but others do not. These diagnoses found a lot of violence against children, learning problems, and many physical disabilities. We try to work things out, but when the parents don’t come, it’s hard.

Villarroel: In addition to the school population, we work with a general population including the parents of the children, or other people in the area. We charge for access to these services. There is a clinic for gynecology, pediatrics, pharmacy, dentistry (with five dental chairs), and a laboratory.

Do the schools pay for the services they receive?

Villarroel: Yes. When it’s through a project, they don’t pay, but without a project, they pay a minimal cost. For example, they pay one boliviano per hour for internet.

Where do you acquire the rest of your funding for projects and services?

Lucu y Nava: We present to various funding sources. Our funding had always been Spanish, after initially being supported by USAID, but USAID funds have been cut. Now Spain is in crisis, and we have received only 70 percent of our usual funding. We are trying to keep all of our programs and services running with the help of new partners. And we have an agreement with the Ministry of Education because some of the teachers who work here receive ministry salaries.

Has the new Education Act Avelino Siñani had an effect on your resources or practice, or not?

Villarroel: No, our support has not changed, but the system has changed for the schools where we work. Because of the law they’re bringing together parents and communities for meetings. We work with teachers on the new law so that they can be well informed and able to handle it better.

How do you start a new partnership or a school project? Do they ask you, or do you as CEMSE offer your services?

Villarroel: Both. We go out early in the year with proposals, but also, when developing proposals, we take into account the needs of the educational units. Then once you have a project, we again consult with the schools to see if they want to participate; we establish a relationship and make a commitment. We have an agreement with each institution with which we work, which is signed by both sides.

Lucu y Nava: Often, the schools already know of us and ask us to enter into a relationship. There are some with projects specific to health, or computing; it’s pretty open.

What are some of the biggest challenges of this work you do as an institution?

Villarroel: One challenge is to make the entire school community involved and integrate them. Sometimes teachers put in very little time at work because they work a shift in the school, and during the other half of the day they work elsewhere. So, it's hard for them to come during alternative hours for our programs.

Another challenge as an institution is introducing our materials to be used in the schools and replicated in different contexts.

Lucu y Nava: We start from the principle of qualifying human resources, which are the teachers. That presents several challenges. In a project we can work with 500 teachers, but of these 500 maybe 200 show up. Sometimes working with teachers is a challenge, but it is also our purpose.

What about education in general, what are the challenges?

Lucu y Nava: Realizing, implementing what’s in the new law. I think that's the biggest challenge. So far we have worked with humanistic education and technical production, but they’re isolated. That's what our country needs to no longer be so dependent on aid.

I'm also interested in the subject of the Jesuits and how they contribute to this work, and their values.

Villarroel: In reality, Ignatian pedagogy is what directs our work. We aim, in every project we do, for integral formation of students. Necessarily, we work values and attitudes. I’d call it our strength.

Speaking more technically, all our materials have to do with this Ignatian pedagogy of working from context, experience, and action. This methodology is always present in everything we do.

Is it difficult to get Ignatian pedagogy to be taken into account in the public schools?

Lucu y Nava: We don’t say it like that, but it is there in the background, and we insert it into our work. But we don’t preach it.

Villarroel: As Mary said, though, they recognize this element in the sense that our work goes beyond the content. We have always been strong in values and attitudes, such as the issues of democracy and gender equality. These are the changes in attitude that have taken place in schools. We also work on emotions and sexuality, and in those areas we must work attitudes. This is recognized by the schools.

Can you tell me more about this project of democracy and gender equality?

Villarroel: The project’s intention was to create an atmosphere of greater participation, greater communication, and integration among members of the educational community. It also has a focus on teacher training. We work first with diagnosis, to identify in each educational unit what’s going on, what factors are observed related to discrimination in the classroom, what are the characteristics of communication between teachers and students, between teachers themselves, between students, between teachers and principals... We did this diagnosis in each educational unit, and from that we developed a work plan.

There are teaching teams that manage the strategies. Parallel to this, we worked with the students directly. One aspect that has been quite successful is to work with student governments, which have been formed through electronic voting. For the first time, the students have elected their representatives to this popular system. Besides that, it is important that they not only have elections, but a whole training process before to prepare students to develop proposals and after that so that the winners can fulfill them. Through that, students and teachers have also worked together more directly. In some schools, students have been invited to a council of teachers to explain the problems they had in their courses.

The participation of women has been greatly strengthened. Normally, those who were at the head of the student boards were male. Women were secretaries, but this has changed.

Another aspect is the strategies that have been developed for gender equity work through mathematics, language, and science.

What do the student boards do?

Villarroel: Their work plans cover various elements, such as athletics, how they will organize themselves, community service and how they will help students who are at a disadvantage, coordinating with principals and teachers to interact in a better way, and they can assist in troubleshooting. Before, the boards were only principals and teachers, but now they’ve taken into account the voice of the students. They are an important part of the educational community.

Lucu y Nava: Now we are also talking about the role of adolescents in Sucre, which is based on training in rural areas. There are central education and sectional units, which are tiny. From the smaller units, there are representatives to serve on the board of students at the central level. Then one of these students will take part in the municipal council. It is another way to encourage participation; now they’re not just electing students, but the representatives must also develop proposals to work in the community.

Villarroel: We are trying to promote proactive participation, that they propose plans for projects after returning to their schools.

Do you work here with school boards?

Lucu y Nava: Yes, but they are more resistant, especially in urban areas, due to time constraints.

Villarroel: The dads and moms are always working, but in rural areas you can work more on this topic because the boards are always there. They’re participating, watching, and exercising some control. What we are doing is working with them on the issue of obligations, rights, and their ability to participate in the educational unit. Before, they thought they only had to control. Now, the possibilities are growing. They have the possibility of working in education, to contribute to educational programs. We are working to guide them to that.

Another part is that from school boards, and the links they have with students and teachers, we are working on educational responsibility. The fact is that all of them are responsible within an educational unit.

How does the issue of gender equity show itself in school boards?

Lucu y Nava: The boards are mixed, but with more women in some places. In La Paz and El Alto, including the director positions, women participate. In Pucarani, the women are involved, but all the directors are men.

In your work, does education imply or suggest intercultural education, gender equality, the inclusion of people with disabilities?

Lucu y Nava: Not so much. We do educational work from another point of view.

Villarroel: For us, education should not generate exclusion, of all different types. We do work with people with learning disabilities, because there are many who are excluded from school because they have a learning disability. That’s what the support classroom is for. But we don’t work as much with students with other special needs. Moreover, this percentage is very low. It is not our forte.

Is there anything else you want to tell me?

Lucu y Nava: We also have a four-year-old project where youth volunteers do community service. The main idea is to train children with certain Christian values, with the model of Christ's life. It is part of a series of multi-issue workshops, for awareness, and then these groups do social action projects that they have to plan. For example, they choose a daycare, or an elderly home. By working with faculty, they establish links with these institutions so they can go and help. The project is small, but it has great results in terms of the awareness of the participants. We have it in La Paz and El Alto. There are a hundred high school youth who do this work every year.

They have gone to education centers for children with special needs, make friends, and, along with their teachers, have experienced emotional growth through this.

What is the process of preparation or training for community service?

Lucu y Nava: There is a certain thematic program, and separate from that there are different workshops on specific issues. We also have the support of the Jesuits, who come to give talks to young people. Once they are more aware, then they make their plan and start work.

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