Friday, October 5th.
I went on my first "Unlimited Potential" school visit today. It was a moving experience, but it also gave me a good example of what we mean by "Sustained Social and Economic Opportunity."
The school is called Escuela Oficial Rural Mixta Jose Ignacio Ortiz Vides and is located on a mountain about a thirty minute drive from Antigua, Guatemala. They have 160 students from pre-school through grade 6 there. My escorts for the visit were Melanie de Saravia, Microsoft’s country manager for Guatemala along with Lorena de Pastor and two other people from the country’s Ministry of Education.
Our visit was obviously a big deal for the school. There was an arch of balloons waiting for us over the dirt driveway, and the students had painted a large welcome sign on a wall along with two crepe paper flags. The school is located in a commercial flower growing region, and the principal and her staff greeted us with bouquets of roses, orchids, and lilies. All of the kids were assembled in the courtyard to say hello, and about 40 of their moms (most with babies slung from their shoulders) were sitting off to the side. After a short greeting ceremony, they asked me to give a little speech and we then went on a tour of the classrooms and the computer lab.
Even though the kids were poor, the school was clean and there was a lot of energy in the air. The courtyard had "life-size" paintings of different characters ranging from Mayan warriors to Winnie the Pooh and Fred and Wilma Flintstone. The combined 5th and 6th grade class had about 20 kids, including the class president, a girl who won the office because she had the best grades. The 3rd grade class was way more crowded, with over 40 kids. "This is the age when we start to lose them" Lorena told me. "Anything we can do to keep them in school longer will make a difference." She also told me that attendance had increased after the school had opened a computer lab, and the school was in the process of converting one of their buildings into new classrooms to accommodate the increase.
The computer lab had about 20 refurbished PCs along with some printers and a scanner. The fourth graders were in there using a program to help them correct their math homework (long multiplication). They seemed very focused, with little notebooks on their laps containing the equations they had drawn out by hand, and they were then using the computers to check their answers.
As we walked out of the lab, I noticed a 3 ft. wide satellite antenna on the roof of one of the buildings. "What’s that for?" I asked. No one seemed to know, and one of the ministry of education people had to ask around and finally came up with an answer: "Some person donated it to the school for Internet access, but then stopped paying the satellite bill, so it doesn’t work".
I’ve thought about that answer all day. I bet when the satellite dish was installed, a person like me showed up for a ceremony complete with the balloons, flowers, assembled kids, and moms with the babies in slings. I bet they made a speech about the importance of connecting with the rest of the world, and how there will be a better future for the children enabled by technology. And then someone stopped paying the bill.
Guatemala is a country where an entry level teacher makes US$250 a month. It costs that teacher US$14 a month to buy a 128kb dialup connection. That’s the equivalent of a recent college grad in the US paying $150 a month for a very slow NetZero dialup connection. So introducing high speed Internet access to a rural school in Guatemala is a BIG deal, even more so when the school has the policy of sharing the resource with everyone in the community, which is what this school does.
But it makes no sense to introduce the technology and then effectively take it away because we haven’t figured out how to keep it running in places like Guatemala on an ongoing, locally-supported basis. That holds true whether it’s Internet access, $100 laptops or any other technology with the promise of improving people’s lives. This is what we mean by sustained social and economic opportunity. There needs to be a model that enables the community to keep it and manage it once it gets there.