Executive Perspective

Equipping the Globe With a Powerful Weapon

by Daniel A. Domenech

"Last week the father of one of our boys here at the school shot and killed the mother and then turned the gun on himself. The 15-year-old boy is now caring for his 10-year-old brother and 5-year-old sister," Carmen Cortez Carpio, head of the Colegio Nacional de Ciencias in Cusco, Peru, told me and fellow U.S. school leaders.

Dan_DomenechDaniel A. Domenech

We heard her chilling story inside the 5,000-student, all-boys school, considered to be the best public school in Cusco, as part of the AASA International Invitational Seminar on Schooling. Nineteen educators from the United States were visiting schools and universities and meeting with officials from Peru’s Ministry of Education during a two-week excursion.

As we moved from classroom to classroom, we saw well-behaved young men dressed in uniforms, politely listening to their teachers’ lectures. In Peru, the public schools are generally the domain of the poor. The parents who can afford it send their children to private schools.

Resource Starved
Peru’s public schools lack most of the resources we are accustomed to seeing in America’s public schools. The government pays the teachers’ salaries, but other operating expenses, such as facility maintenance and instructional materials and supplies, have to be raised by the school. Parents are asked to contribute as much as they can and area businesses are solicited for contributions.

Carpio picked up the story of the now-parentless pupils. “Since the three kids are now on their own, their classmates collect a basket of food for them every week so that they have something to eat. The three of them are living in a one-room apartment, and they sell fruits in the streets to make ends meet,” the principal said.

“Our children want to go to school and get an education and they work hard, but their lack of progress and achievement is not their fault,” Carpio added. “We simply lack the resources to provide them with the quality of education that they deserve.”

To illustrate the difficulties she and her staff contend with at the school, Carmen relayed to us how one day she found a 2-day-old baby girl hidden inside a suitcase. Waiting until someone would turn up and claim the child, she took the baby home with her.

Two years have passed and she is still caring for the child. The social support systems that we take for granted in the United States simply do not exist in other parts of the world. Nevertheless, with a smile on her face and with a great deal of pride, she boasts of the fact that two of the school’s graduates now are in the United States working for NASA.

Saving Others
Carlos Urena Gayoso, who works for the Peruvian Ministry of Education, shared with us that 45 percent of Peruvians live on less than $2 per day. He estimates half of the student population suffer from malnutrition, yet the schools have no food program. Outside of the cities, students have to walk great distances to get to school, and more often than not, they simply remain at home.

We experienced this lengthy journey to school firsthand when we visited the Pampallacta community nestled in the Andes mountain range at an elevation of 12,000 feet. We traveled to Pampallacta in small vans as wide as the precarious road that wound up the mountain, our spectacular views of the valley below unimpeded by any structure that might protect the van from a free fall.

Our arrival was greeted by hundreds of colorfully garbed waifs who peeked at us from rocks, bushes and trees. With some coaxing from their elders, the children came out and dutifully lined up in front of the school to receive the goodies we had brought for them. The scene reminded me of Greg Mortenson’s book Three Cups of Tea. Mortenson was a mountain climber who, in an attempt to climb one of the peaks in the Pakistani area of the Himalayas, lost his way and would have died if not for the wonderful people of the village who found him and nursed him back to life. Mortenson was so grateful to the people of Korphe that he built a school for the children of the village. Pampallacta is the Peruvian version of Korphe, another area of the world where extreme poverty exists and the inhabitants lack many of what we would refer to as the necessities of life.

We learned much from our Peru visit. In Lima, we visited schools that at first seemed to be Catholic schools because of the religious images throughout. In one school, the principal was a nun. However, the public schools in Peru are not bound by a church-state separation.

Exporting Education
The last time I had been on an AASA International Seminar trip was back in 1998, the year I was the association’s president. That year we traveled to Cuba and, in spite of my intense aversion to the Castro regime, I was nevertheless impressed by the commitment I witnessed to learning by both students and teachers. Both countries lack our resources, but nevertheless, the students were engaged in their activities and willing to make the most out of the opportunities they were given.

As Mortenson attempts to point out in his book, education is the most powerful weapon we have to fight ignorance and terrorism. We have a new administration and a wonderful opportunity to export books rather than bombs, to build schools in areas of the world that do not have them, and to teach children to think for themselves rather than letting themselves be indoctrinated by our enemies as they turn their young bodies into weapons of destruction. Let’s instead teach them to use education as their secret weapon. Educate a child and save the world.

Daniel Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org