Rural learning helps stem urban migration

An innovative approach, using a curriculum adapted for country life and delivered via NGOs, provides new opportunities for 15,000 in rural Colombia

JAMUNDI, Colombia - Educational District No. 034 starts somewhat to the west of where the Pan American Highway cuts across Colombia's western flank and extends to the Pacific Ocean. Favored with ample mineral resources, good soil, abundant water and a temperate climate year-round, the district would seem to be blessed with all the prerequisites for prosperity.

Yet the region is poorer than Colombia as a whole and only sparsely developed. One of three rural districts administered by the municipality of Jamundi, it is settled partly by the descendants of former slaves, who survive with subsistence farming supplemented by jobs at coffee picking and sugar cane harvesting. Like in much of the countryside in Colombia, and, indeed, in many other places in Latin America and the South, opportunity has fled to the cities. The problem is strongly related to education. In the first place, there aren't enough secondary schools in the region - only 50 percent of eligible students are enrolled in high school - making a good education hard to obtain. To make matters worse, most of those who do manage to finish secondary school are unlikely to find a suitable job, and so they head to Jamundi, or over the horizon to Cali, the largest city in the region. At the same time, the lack of opportunity and development here make it hard to attract and keep the teachers that might make secondary education more available.

The introduction into the district of an innovative new system for rural education, however, has given municipal officials new hope that this cycle can be changed.

Known as the "System for Tutorial Learning" or "SAT" (the Spanish acronym for "Sistema de Aprendizaje Tutorial"), the program was brought to the district four years ago by Dora Alicia Otero, an energetic young woman from Cali who had recently received training in the system, which makes use of a curriculum that has been entirely written in consideration of the realities of rural life.

"Until two years ago, the desertion rate after primary school was very large," said Hortensia Elena Aguirre, who is director of educational district No. 034. "The area is very poor, and the students leave because they have to go and find work."

But more recently the desertion rate has fallen dramatically in Villacolombia, one of the small communities in the district where Ms. Otero now offers the SAT program, said Ms. Aguirre. Of 25 graduates from primary school last year, she said, 20 are enrolled in the program run by Ms. Otero.

"Without SAT, they would have gone, or like most other youth, they would simply be collecting coffee and working day to day," said Ms. Aguirre. "It's the only way to be able to continue secondary level education in these communities."

Municipal officials are so pleased with the effort that they are backing Ms. Otero in an expansion of the project so that the SAT method can be offered in the other three rural districts of Jamundi.

A Nationwide Success

All over Colombia the SAT project is showing bright promise. Developed by the Foundation for the Application and Teaching of the Sciences (FUNDAEC), a private development foundation based in Cali, the SAT method is currently being used in 13 of the 30 departments of Colombia, reaching more than 15,000 students. In Antioquia, the country's largest department, the state government has backed the program in 60 percent of 124 rural municipalities and is seeking 100 percent coverage.

The program has even drawn attention from outside the country. In late February seven representatives from the Honduras Ministry of Education visited Colombia to learn about the project and consider it for their country.

What has made the method so successful, said Ms. Aguirre and others, is not only that the curriculum is uniquely formulated for rural students - although that weighs large in its effectiveness. It's also the manner of its presentation. Using a series of highly interactive workbooks, specially trained tutors present the curriculum. The tutors themselves often come from rural areas and they make themselves available on a flexible schedule to meet the needs of rural students.

Taken all together, the program represents an entirely new approach to rural education - and to addressing the problems of rural life in Colombia.

"The central idea we had in developing the SAT program - as with most of FUNDAEC's projects - is that the traditional educational system is not applicable for rural inhabitants," said Dr. Gustavo Correa, the director of FUNDAEC and one of the program's primary authors. "Traditional education systems in Latin America are mostly urban oriented. People who graduate from high school simply don't have the skills needed to thrive in the countryside, and they didn't have other options but to leave."

Instead of simply layering a few basic rural vocational skills, such as animal husbandry or soil chemistry, onto a traditional urban education that emphasizes an academic, often theoretical approach to mathematics, literature and science, FUNDAEC wrote the SAT curriculum from scratch.

For example, rather than dividing subjects up into traditional categories, like biology, mathematics and social studies, the SAT curriculum takes an integrated approach that combines all three subjects in, say, a discussion of how insect populations reproduce (biology) exponentially (math) given the right conditions (social studies and ecology). The result is an integrated curriculum that makes sense to campesinos raised in rural areas - and still covers the same subjects without losing any rigor.

In addition, the curriculum contains a strong measure of moral education. Some of the founders of FUNDAEC are Bahá'ís and Bahá'í principles are incorporated in SAT. The curriculum is organized around the all-important concept of service to the community, for example. It also emphasizes the importance of basic moral values like honesty, trustworthiness and trusteeship, as well as basic ecological principles.

Impact on Development

In its totality, the result is a curriculum that stimulates people to action.

"I feel it is truly a revolutionary education program. It fits the rural reality and addresses the kinds of knowledge that the people need." 

--- Fr. James D. Mitchell, director, Fundación Communidad El Camino

"I feel it is truly a revolutionary education program," said James D. Mitchell, the director of Fundación Communidad El Camino, a local non-governmental organization (NGO) that operates near Velez in the department of Santander and is devoted to rural development. "I have found nothing in the literature that comes close to the SAT program in terms of an education program that has been developed from the ground up for the rural inhabitants. And it certainly is a program that fits the rural reality and addresses the kinds of knowledge that the people need - without limiting it just to rural knowledge."

The El Camino Foundation is one of more than 20 NGOs in Colombia that offer the SAT program through an agreement with FUNDAEC. Fr. Mitchell, a Catholic priest, heard about the SAT program six years ago; El Camino now oversees some 620 students in 32 groups in Santander.

"I have worked with young people most of my life and I have never seen a group of rural students so energized," said Fr. Mitchell. "They are activated because of the program. They are enterprising. They have no fear of speaking out. It's not just an education program by itself and isolated from everything else. It is part of a whole development process."

Graduates of the SAT program do indeed emerge with comprehensive knowledge in agriculture, animal husbandry, soil chemistry, and other fields traditionally associated with rural vocations. But they also come out with knowledge about how to create microenterprises and participate in community development.

Community development is in part stimulated by the organic manner in which the program expands. Because it is a tutorial system, based more on a series of workbooks than on open-ended curriculum planning done by an educator, it is possible for someone with a high school education who has taken a few special courses to become a tutor; indeed, one route to becoming a SAT tutor is to graduate from the program.

Thus, with some additional training, it is possible for graduates to establish their own SAT tutorial programs, preferably in their own communities. In this way, the program itself creates the possibility for employment as SAT graduates go on to establish their own private education enterprises. The program thus provides a shortcut in the creation of more secondary-level teachers, and it produces teachers who are by inclination willing to remain in the rural areas.

The program's positive impact on the development process is one reason that the state of Antioquia wants SAT to be established in all of its rural municipalities, said Clara Monica Zapata Jaramillo, former director of the Division of Formal Education in Antioquia and now in the state education department's Office of Special Projects.

"When the students finish, they are able to manage small agro-industrial enterprises," said Ms. Zapata. "It gives them enough technical knowledge for that."

As well, said Ms. Zapata, the program's emphasis on the importance of community participation in all its facets "has greatly strengthened the process of participation and the cultural identity of the community in those rural communities where it is offered," said Ms. Zapata.

Municipal authorities who oversee the program in District 034 are similarly pleased.

"In Villacolombia, many of the SAT graduates have come to occupy some of the key public posts in the community," said Ms. Aguirre. "They now work to run the public telephone office, the public library, the local pharmacy, the pre-kindergarten program." Those were the types of positions for which, in the past, the municipality had to find people from outside the community, a task which was often difficult.

"SAT definitely redresses the problem of urban overcrowding, because it gives rural students the tools to create their own small enterprises within their own communities so they can earn a living in their communities." 

--Hortensia Elena Aguirre, director, educational district No. 034

"In this way, SAT definitely redresses the problem of urban overcrowding," Ms. Aguirre continued, "because it gives rural students the tools to create their own small enterprises within their own communities so they can earn their own living in their communities.

"So what we are arriving at is the community starts managing itself," she continued. "The time will come when the municipality of Jamundi will not need to bring professionals from outside to fill those managerial jobs - they will be filled by the same communities."

This kind of empowerment is having a ripple effect throughout the district as students pass their new values to others.

"SAT helps because the students have a greater consciousness of living in their own community," said Háder Carabali, Jamundi's municipal secretary of education. "And that consciousness of the importance of remaining in the community has been exported to other communities with whom the students interact, with family members and neighbors."