Original URL: http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/0103mexico-education03.html

Money migration blamed for soaring teen dropout rate
Cox News Service
Jan. 3, 2004 12:00 AM
Susan Ferriss

APASEO EL GRANDE,Mexico - It's difficult to concentrate on algebra when your mother is planning to smuggle you over the U.S.-Mexican border soon.

It's difficult to focus on civics when you fear that your part-time job mixing animal feed might become full time if your family needs more money.

It also is hard to learn when your classroom lights are burned out and when the only substitute available to watch over class when the teacher is absent turns out to be the doorman.

A hard-edged reality intrudes in the classrooms of Technical Middle School No. 8 in Apaseo El Grande, a small town 162 miles northwest of Mexico City in Guanajuato state.

The middle school enjoys what appears to be a caring staff, but the classrooms are stark and sparsely equipped. As with most other Mexican public schools, it has no government-supplied budget for repairs. It is also afflicted with some of the most pressing social problems Mexico faces in educating its youths.

"A mother asked me if we could put her children to work sweeping up instead of just sitting in classes," school Director Maria de Jesus Martinez said. "We try to tell them over and over again that the better educated you are, the better you will be off later."

Mexico is discovering, painfully, that economic reforms like the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement are no deliverance from poverty and underdevelopment. Unless workers become better prepared, they won't rise above being considered cheap labor and won't have the tools to unleash their own entrepreneurial ideas.

Mexican schools are trying to prepare children for an economy of little hope. Yet Mexico's economy won't improve, economic analysts agree, unless it can improve its failing public school system.

Only 66 percent of Mexico's 15-year-olds are in school, according to a report released in November by Mexico's National Institute for Education Evaluation. In 2002, only 60 percent of high school students graduated.

The statistics explain why Mexico's educational progress is falling behind so many other countries, not just nations of comparable economies, like South Korea or Brazil, but also Indonesia and Thailand.

A recent study by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of 30 industrialized nations, found that Mexico's progress toward producing more high school graduates was the slowest of all member nations.

South Korea almost doubled its high school graduation rate in about a generation, to 95 percent from 45 percent. Mexico, although achieving better attendance in primary school and producing more college graduates, still has trouble getting kids through high school.

The survey, conducted in 2001, found that only a quarter of Mexicans ages 25 to 34 received a high school diploma while in their teens. That's not much better than the 17 percent rate for those who are now 45 to 54.

The organization also found that less than 7 percent of 15-year-old Mexican students were at the two highest levels of reading literacy for their age group. The organization average is more than 31 percent.

Guanajuato has the worst rate for attendance among 15-year-olds of any Mexican state: less than 53 percent. Statistics are almost as bad in other states with high rates of migration to the United States, such as Zacatecas and Michoacan.

Migration is partly to blame because families are draining towns and taking children with them.

"This is a major, major issue, economically and educationally. Thousands, literally, millions of kids are crossing the border," said Christopher Martin of the Ford Foundation, whose Mexico City office is studying migration and education. "On this side of the border, in Mexico, there is a kind of blindness. On the U.S. side of the border, there's a lack of interest."

Also at fault is an old-fashioned work ethic that tugs at Mexican children, making them or their parents feel the youngsters must start contributing to the family's income.

Ana Yasmin Marroquin, 13, is one of 1,150 children attending Apaseo El Grande's middle school. She's eager to learn, but teachers fear she's at risk of dropping out.

What does Yasmin think would prevent her from going on to high school?

"The money," she said, tears sliding down her cheeks.

Her mother lives in the United States, although she's not sure where. Her father, who went to the United States to work when she was 9, sends money and calls her.

"The important thing is to be with him," she said looking down and wiping tears. She is in the care of an aunt, and in the mornings she helps cut and tie up roses for her aunt to sell.

Poor families in Mexico often say a shortage of money forces kids to abandon school.

Public schools are free, but as the school year begins, teachers almost always ask parents for a "voluntary quota": $20, maybe more, to buy light bulbs or toilet paper.

Families also need money for uniforms, notebooks and pencils. The simple fact that some families feel they cannot afford bus fare also prompts many children to drop out.