Harvest time for rural network

19th May 1995 at 01:00
Three years ago, Erica Moller, a talented, sensitive teacher with 24 years' experience, working in a rural area, could hardly force herself into her classroom. She took a year's leave and is still being treated for depression.

"I felt terribly alone, cut off," she says. Today, a new programme for rural teachers has brought optimism back into her voice.

Her experience is typical. In the Ninth Region of southern Chile, where her Santa Ana school is located, two out of three schools are simply clapboard classrooms where one teacher juggles the needs of up to 30 pupils at six different study levels. Five hundred of the region's 1,332 schools can only be reached in the summer, when muddy tracks dry back into roads.

High poverty levels and broken families add to the complexity of the teachers' task. Eighty per cent of pupils belong to Chile's largest ethnic minority, the Mapuche Indians, and 60 per cent of grade 4 students cannot read.

Small wonder that the region ranks last on national examinations. And small wonder, perhaps, that it has created what is quickly becoming a successful national programme, now running in Chile's 3,000 rural schools as part of a special project financed by the World Bank.

Gaston Sepulveda, an education professor at the University of the Frontier, designed the basic programme, which draws on well established educational theories. But it is the supervisors and teachers who have made it a success, often sacrificing their free time to wade through mud for meetings. "We've tried to make the teachers part of the transformation of their schools, " Gaston Sepulveda says.

A day spent travelling the region's rutted roads in the pouring rain, with two supervisors and the programme head, Norma Varas, reveals how much the programme has accomplished in three years. The three think nothing of travelling 120 miles in a morning to visit three schools.

Ubaldina Mera Maquepan, a Mapuche, has taught for 20 years. Rain drums on her classroom roof, but inside children chat and argue as they work. A fable about a burning forest, written and illustrated by students, decorates one wall.

Teachers say that just the fact that children no longer sit in rows "like passengers on a bus" has made teaching more personal and pupils more supportive of each other. They now work in mixed-ability groups with advanced students helping those behind them in age or skills.

Specially-designed textbooks tell stories and present problems borrowed from the farms where these children grow up. Discipline is not an issue, although Chilean teachers usually have to spend a quarter of their time trying to control students.

"Pressure from their peers is very strong," says Ubaldina. "Each group sets its own goals and standards. Often students are more demanding than we teachers."

A national, 15-person team of educators has developed new texts and trained regional supervisors, who visit schools and organise four four-day training sessions for teachers during the first year of the programme, followed by two reinforcement sessions the second year. Regular monthly meetings bring teachers from neighbouring schools together to reinforce training and help with problems.

"At first, it was very hard," says Ubaldina. "Now, I'd never go back. We can't get students to go home at night."

Norma Varas tells the story of an eight-year-old student, who learned to read and quickly worked her way through the modest classroom library which was provided by the programme.

"Her father was an alcoholic," Norma says. "Every night she'd read a story, to keep him home, away from the bar. Then they'd snuggle up and go to sleep. "

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