Students in Chile Demand Better Education

Chairs blocking the doors of public schools throughout Chile have come down in most places. They became a common site during the three-week strike staged by high school students in Chile demanding immediate educational reform.

Student protests dominated headlines in Chile, as well as the national attention. Largely due to the dynamic and efficient organization on the part of the student movement, students displayed a talent in organization, communication discipline and social responsibility in their “tomas”.

A “toma” is an occupation of the school. The number of schools in toma rose to a peak two weeks ago. The toma strategy was developed as a way to voice demands without the violence associated with marching in the streets.

An organized structure to administer activities and conduct within the student body allowed the tomas to be an effective tool in the schools’ dissent. One of these schools that participated is the Liceo Experimental de Manuel Salas (LMS), located in the capital of Santiago, and was represented by student body president, Ariel De La Maza, and spokesman Simon Moreno. LMS started their toma on May 24, 2006 in LMS

“Education (in Chile) is geared towards the economy, not towards the education,” De La Maza said.

According to De La Maza and Moreno, education in Chile should integrate more topics, from civic government, sexual education to art, rather than focus solely on preparing students for the college entrance exam, know as the PSU, which emphasizes on Math and Spanish.

De La Maza also voiced their concerns regarding how education is governed.

“The problem of the law is one of its origin, those making the laws are those who know about economics, not about education.” De La Maza stated.

Chile is often used as a model for the success of the free trade market system. For those who have a good financial status, top-notch facilities exist for everything from medicine to education in the private sector. The central government plays a limited role in the regulation of educational institutions. This role has been left to smaller community governments, who have varying levels of resources available.

One of the results of this policy is that schools are opened as an investment of capital with the expectation to see a profit, rather than as an institution for learning and development.

As a result of Chile’s deeply divided social classes, those who are left to the public sector, which is a large majority of the population, the resources available are hardly adequate. Therefore, lower classes are condemned to the poorly equipped schools with little hope of change to this system in the near future.

This division in quality of education based on class is also one of the student’s main demands. They hope to see a more integrated system where a studious individual can succeed regardless of their social class.

Student’s concerns reached the highest level of the Chilean government, a testament to the efficient structure used by the students.

Apart from its leadership, committees are also charged with maintaining a smooth operation and keeping the movement in order. Several committees have been formed, one for safety, food, cleaning/hygiene and art, maintaining a productive, motivated, and clean environment within the occupied school.

By far the busiest committee was that charged with the safety of students while they in toma. To prevent anyone from entering undetected, students stacked desks and chairs blocking gates and entrances around the school’s large perimeter. In other schools, students have been faced with attacks from neo-Nazi groups, further complicating an already difficult situation.

The main entrance, which allows students to come and go, also acted as a registry for anyone wanting to enter. In general, only students are allowed inside; press, parents and teachers left outside, though they made exceptions for a few music groups to perform. Guests presented their ID cars, which monitors kept during the duration of their stay. Incoming students were also checked for signs of drunkenness, and their bags searched to verify that didn’t bring in any alcohol or drugs. In this sense, the students are very serious about maintaining a productive attitude.

During the day students enjoyed a variety of activities and shows, ranging from dance, theater, music and art workshops. These activities also fed the movement. For example, the perimeter of the school, which takes about one city block, was covered with signs and banners supporting their cause. Students working with the art committee made each banner and sign from different discarded posters donated by a student’s parent who owns a local print shop.

LMS also relied on its community neighbors for donations of food, and money to stock a basic inventory while striking. Basic foods such as spaghetti, hot dogs, and vegetables filled the small kitchen that fed the students.

While De La Maza and the other students slept little throughout the toma, they have sleeping quarters set up in the school gymnasium. Of course, a space to play a little football also helped students pass the time during some of the duller moments.

Last week students agreed to accept the government’s offer, which recognized many of their demands. While the protests and tomas have stopped for now, they have left a lasting mark on Chile’s political landscape, as well as shown that young people can indeed be the most active citizens in a democratic society.

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