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About the Author

Maria Jaramillo is an Ed.M. candidate in the International Education Policy program at Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is an advisor in Education for Work and Human Development for the Secretariat for Economic Development in Bogotá, Colombia, and the director of the program Aulas Sin Fronteras (Classrooms Without Borders) in partnership with the Colombian Ministry of Education. She has been an education consultant and an entrepreneurship teacher. Maria has a Bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering from Andes University in Colombia. Contact: mcjaramillo106@gmail.com 

The results of the work of the different groups engaged in this academic project can be found in “An educational calamity. Learning and teaching during the Covid-19 pandemic”.

Chapter 7 “Addressing Negative Trends in Attendance and Pre-Enrollment in Schools to Prevent Dropout During Covid-19: The Case of Quintana Roo, Mexico” was co-authored by Kristen Hinckley, Maria Jaramillo, Daniel Martinez, Wilbert Sánchez and Patricia Vazquez.

Sharing: a Powerful Tool to Overcome Uncertainty

How Latin American countries Can Learn from Collaboration

by | Aug 20, 2021

I boarded the panga (a small boat used by fishermen), with the same apprehension that I felt about my arrival to Rio Quito, a tiny municipality on the banks of the rushing Atrato river in Chocó, one of Colombia’s most underserved regions, located on the remote Pacific coast. I was to complete my first visit to one of the 113 schools that benefited from the Aulas Sin Fronteras (ASF) (Classrooms Without Borders) program, a public-private alliance between top elite high achieving schools and the Colombian Ministry of Education aimed at improving the quality of the education offered by public schools in hard-to-reach regions.

Once I was there, I confronted challenging conditions and all sorts of social problems— confirmed the reality I had only heard about. Precipitously, I thought there was no hope for education to happen under these conditions. Nonetheless, I would soon discover that the grit exhibited by teachers in the public sector in Chocó made it possible to dream about a better future in education.

Students from a public school in Chocó, Colombia, who benefit from the program Aulas Sin Fronteras.

 

After three years as ASF’s director and encouraged by the social crisis intensified by the Covid -19 pandemic, I realized that I needed to gain new perspectives on addressing the most pressing challenges in education to contribute to Chocó and Colombia. That’s why I decided to join the International Education Policy program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). In my first semester, I took Professor Fernando Reimers’ class, Education Policy Analysis and Research in Comparative Perspective.

I decided to take the consulting track for the class, engaging with a team and a “client” interested in advice on sustaining educational opportunities during the pandemic. I was fortunate enough to team up with Kristen, Patricia, Daniel, and Wilbert, a fantastic group of people as concerned as me about taking action in what appears to be one of the most challenging times in human history and education due to pandemic. As we had to decide where to focus on our consultancy, I was willing to work with Choco’s Secretariat of Education because my most significant concern in the past years has been supporting this region’s education. Reflecting on this with my group made me realize I should understand other realities, gain new perspectives and bring back what I had learned to Chocó. That’s how I agreed with my group to work with the Secretary of Education of Quintana Roo (QR), one of Mexico’s 32 states.

On March 23, 2020, the Secretariat of Education of Quintana Roo (SEQ) decided that students from basic education would not return to school, and classes would be held remotely until the end of the academic year in July 2020. To ensure continuity of learning remotely, SEQ created and distributed educational workbooks for students on various subjects. These workbooks were to be used online and offline and complement the national/state level strategy of Aprende en Casa, offering remote learning through television at a national scale, complemented by access to digital platforms such as Google and local radio educational programming.

We started our consultancy in September 2020, just some weeks after the school year had started in Quintana Roo, and remote classes continued. We had our first meeting with the Secretary of Education of Quintana Roo and her team about the pandemic challenges to the local educational agenda. After listening to our client, we defined the most crucial problems. First of all, the government expected an increase in the number of children and youth abandoning school, presented as dropping out.   By September 14, parents had enrolled only 87% of elementary school students in Quintana Roo for the upcoming academic year, according to official SEQ statistics. Moreover, the Secretary and her team expressed concern with the quality of the educational resources developed to continue schooling during the pandemic.

One of Quintana Roo’s schools closed during the pandemic. Credits: Omar Díaz/Quadratín Quintana Roo https://quintanaroo.quadratin.com.mx/por-pandemia-6-mil-estudiantes-abandonaron-las-escuelas-privadas/

 

As we considered the main challenges to QR’s education system, we were concerned about bringing different voices to the conversation, one of the most important lessons I learned throughout Reimers’ class. A local Quintana Roo teacher commented that half of her students’ parents did not enroll their children in the 2020 school year because they were afraid of the health risks of going back to school; they had difficulties receiving the material and lacked support for distance learning. After that conversation, we narrowed our consultancy problem to that, as school dropout seemed the most challenging and complex issue. Our ultimate goal with the consultancy was to support our client so that students continued their education.

We wanted to understand the school dropout phenomenon, so we did a comprehensive literature review. Our findings concerned us as our awareness of the devastating consequences of this complex phenomenon increased. For example, the World Bank estimated that the dropout rate globally would rise from 1.9 in March to 6.8 percentage points by May 2020. More specifically, 3.13 million children in Latin America and the Caribbean were considered at risk.

Broadly explained in our chapter in the book developed from the course, institutions like the OECD and The World Bank highlight the importance of prioritizing the school dropout problem in pandemic times. Engagement, they say, is one of the most challenging aspects to recover. Children who lose connection with school may never return. Moreover, those schooling interruptions during critical stages of a student’s life can worsen life prospects.

According to Mexican researchers and practitioners Lorenzo Gómez Morín and Francisco Miranda López, in their 2013 study, Comprehensive Strategy for the Prevention of Dropout in High School Education, the three most significant and interrelated predictors for school dropout are related to the “individual” area: school attendance, behavior and school achievement. However, according to UNESCO, the current Covid-19 crisis is bringing new factors relating to school dropout such as educational and socioemotional disengagement, increased economic pressure and health issues and safety concerns. According to experts, dropping out of school leads to a rise in child labor, recruitment and exploitation, as well as increased vulnerability of girls to child marriage, adolescent pregnancy and gender-based violence.

After studying the dropout issue before and during Covid-19, our group highlights in our chapter the importance of making this phenomenon visible, as it should be one of the main focuses in education nowadays. Furthermore, as the characteristics, causes and consequences of dropout are changing globally because of Covid-19, our chapter aims to contribute to an international conversation about this phenomenon that could provide understanding and guidance to regions and countries around the world confronting this challenge.

One of the conversations I remember most vividly was at the end of our consultancy with the Secretary of Education of QR. She pointed out the importance of reframing the language when talking about dropouts. She said that dropout is the process in which the students have already abandoned school, measured after the scholar cycle. And that absence is the process that occurs during the student school trajectory that encompasses a variety of factors and can be measured, prevented and treated throughout the school year. This conversation pointed out a new way of understanding and hopefully treating the phenomenon of school dropout that could be helpful for others.

Personally, one of the most exciting aspects of our consultancy was how my understanding of the phenomenon of school dropout transformed and became more comprehensive, as it became a fascinating topic for me.

As a group, we designed policy recommendations for QR’s school dropout challenge, understanding how it changed during Covid and contextualizing it. We decided to follow Reimer’s five perspectives to create a holistic approach to interconnected policy recommendations. We based our recommendations on 1) creating an effective Early Warning System by establishing partnerships with universities or NGOs, 2) raising awareness at the Ministry level to all the systems on the importance of prevention of school dropout, 3) defining a new way to measure dropout, 4) creating a communication and awareness campaign for families, students, and society, 5) promoting strengthened relationships between students, teachers, and caregivers, and 6) implementing a professional development program to train teachers in building caring relationships with their students and improving distance education teaching skills.

While I was working with my group in understanding school dropouts and figuring out policy recommendations that were holistic and achievable for our client in QR, I was gaining a broader perspective to bring back to my work. My conversations around dropout in Chocó with teachers, school principals and Secretariat of Education team members became more relevant and inspiring. I realized that, although QR and Chocó were very different, they were similarly struggling with their students dropping out of school. Thus, I had the opportunity to engage in an inspiring academic project, which deeply enriched me while working in the field and taking advantage of my new knowledge.

Following the new perspective on school dropout that I gained through our consultancy, my team at ASF and I organized a virtual teacher gathering. Again, the findings were shocking as most of the teachers spoke about their challenge to keep up with their student’s performance and how they had lost contact with many of them, not knowing if they will come back to school or drop out.

As a final reflection, I want to highlight that experiences from other countries in Latin America could be helpful for government and school stakeholders to share and gain perspective from others. After my first year as a graduate student at Harvard University, I gained new perspectives, and I believe collaboration between teachers, students, families and other stakeholders in different countries is a powerful tool to overcome uncertainty.

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