Understanding the Mexican Education System
Mexico, like the U.S., Canada and elsewhere, has four levels of public schooling: Kinder (Kindergarten), Primaria (Elementary), Secondaria (Junior High, 7th, 8th and 9th), and Prepa (three years). Attendance is compulsory, but not really enforced. Primary school is free, but there are fees for the attending secondary and prepa. The fees will vary, but they are can be as much as $500 per year. Adding to this expense are school uniforms (required at all levels), supplies and other ancillary costs. These expenses are often beyond the reach of poor Mexican households.
Mexico’s public school system is considered mediocre, although we know many excellent, devoted teachers. The teachers suffer from large class sizes, an inflexible government-controlled curriculum, a short school day, few supplies, very low pay and children coming to school hungry and lethargic. Most middle and upper class Mexicans send their kids to private schools, which are expensive by Mexican standards.
We focus on rural schools located in small communities mostly outside of San Miguel where families are poor, there are social problems owing to the absence of a husband or brother working in “El Norte,” as well as substance and spousal/child abuse. Some parents have had little education themselves and have difficulty helping their children with school work. Children are often forced to drop out of secondary school because of the fees and so they can go to work. Many Mexican employers demand at least a high school degree for an entry job. A university degree is better, particularly in STEM subjects.
A few years ago, Mexico passed a law requiring English instruction at the primary level. Of course, it failed to provide trained teachers to give this instruction in these rural communities. We started helping fulfill this obligation by having volunteers teach English. Everything stopped with COVID-19. Now, we’ve discovered that many children have fallen behind. We responded with providing some volunteers who are trying to help these kids improve their reading skills (in Spanish). COVID is still around us, so most volunteers are reluctant to get involved in classrooms with kids who are unvaccinated. (Mexico, until recently, refused to vaccinate children; however, mask compliance is excellent among Mexicans).
We have discovered that most rural primary schools do not have a library, do not have books the kids can check out, do not have computers for the kids, and of course do not have Internet connections. We started, poco a poco, fulfilling this need. We also started offering “becas” (scholarships or stipends) to secondary and prepa students to encourage them to remain in school. We are hoping that will have a positive effect over the long term. Time will tell. There are a few older, similar beca programs in the San Miguel area and they report a good success rate.
If you are not familiar with San Miguel de Allende, it is a beautiful city, a UNESCO world heritage site, and it is filled with tourists from all over the world who spend lots of money. Also there is a sizeable ex-pat community made up of U.S., citizens, Canadians and some Europeans. Most of the ex-pats are retired. They have access to everything that is available in their home country, including luxury goods and food products. As a result, the in-city Mexican population has access to jobs at every level. They are better off than their country neighbors. Outside the city is another matter. In an area the size of a U.S. county, there are nearly 500 rural communities, many of which are desperately poor. Some are located in remote areas that are difficult to access by car and have no bus service. Some are indigenous. Although most have a local primary school nearby, the facilities are neglected. Secondary and prepa usually involve distance learning (mainly using closed circuit TVs) in buildings that are bit far for some communities.
We have learned that the moms of any community are the backbone. They are willing to help with projects and events and they are anxious for their children to learn. They are not, however, well organized among themselves. For instance, there is no PTA-type of organization, nor are there sports teams or facilities for sports. We encourage the moms’ involvement wherever we can. We find that the fathers are mostly absent from school-related activities. Reasons include the culture, their menial jobs that involve a long bus ride, or their migration to the north.