Challenges in the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca | Part 3: Education

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Challenges in the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca | Part 3: Education

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This is the third of a 5-part series about the biggest problems in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé and how they are being addressed. You can click here to see the first part here about Physical Infrastructure or here for the second part about Social Problems.

The top 5 challenges currently facing the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé are:

  1. Physical Infrastructure
  2. Social Problems
  3. Education
  4. Labor/Work
  5. Health/Medical Assistance

Today we will cover Problem #3: Education.

Teacher with students in front of an unpainted school in the Comarca
Teacher with students in front of an unpainted school in the Comarca

What IS a good education? The definition seems to be forever changing (and the manner to receive it even more so), but I think most people will agree that critical thinking skills are important as well as a general motivation to achieve and succeed.

I don’t think MEDUCA (Panama's Ministry of Education)Panama averaged 70th in the world in the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Unfortunately all of these problems are amplified in the Comarca.

MEDUCA assigns all unlucky new teachers to the least desired teaching posts in the country, many of them in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé. They try to not place teachers too far from their homes, but I’ve met teachers who were assigned to posts 12+ hours away from their hometowns. Typically the post lasts for 3 years and afterwards they can request to be transferred.

All children should have access to equal opportunities, but in a devoloping country like Panama, reality dictates a very different story for the children of the Comarca. Indigenous kids at school in la Comarca.
All children should have access to equal opportunities, but in a devoloping country like Panama, reality dictates a very different story for the children of the Comarca. Indigenous kids at school in la Comarca.

Being taught by inexperienced teachers consistently will undoubtedly have an effect on an individual’s education. It’s certainly not the teacher’s fault that he or she hasn’t gone through the learning curve and the growing pains yet. But it is unfair to the tens of thousands of children and adolescents who deserve better.

How many first year teachers could be described as great? How about those working in a poor school with students who don’t value their education? Living in a community hours away from their homes and families in a shared living space (with your co-workers, nonetheless)? With a very limited variety of food choices, no cell phone signal, internet access nor electricity? As I said, it is NOT the teacher’s fault. The problem is with how the system's designed. After teachers spend 3 years far away from their home, they will almost always end up with a permanent position in a more urbanized setting, where the quality of education isn't great either: teachers' performance won't be measured and financial incentives to improve aren't there either as they only have to hang on to their job (by just showing up) to improve their salary.

School and Teacher Residence in Cerro Otoe-Comarca Ngäbe-Bugle
School and Teacher Residence in Cerro Otoe-Comarca Ngäbe-Bugle.

What adds to their despair are ill-equipped classrooms (usually with no electricity, broken desks, and not enough desks for all of the students), few textbooks (which are rarely loaned to students to be taken home) and students who don’t have enough money to purchase necessary classroom supplies.

To give you an idea of what’s really going on, here are some actual statistics from the 2012 school year (data collected by MEDUCA):

The biggest problem is in the Elementary and Middle Schools. The failure, drop out and pregnancy rates are higher than the national average. For the most part, if a Comarca student makes it to high school, they have a good chance of graduating.
The biggest problem is in the Elementary and Middle Schools. The failure, drop out and pregnancy rates are higher than the national average. For the most part, if a Comarca student makes it to high school, they have a good chance of graduating.

Children are encouraged by their parents and grandparents to go to school, especially since their welfare money is now partially tied to their children’s school attendance. However, the distance from home to school is usually quite long, especially as the child advances through school (there are fewer middle and high schools than elementary schools). In some more conservative communities, girls are not permitted to walk this distance, therefore their schooling stops whether they like it or not.

Depending on the area of the Comarca, even some young children have to walk hours to get to school (just one way).
Depending on the area of the Comarca, even some young children have to walk hours to get to school (just one way).

Since the high schools are mainly in the hub-cities, the majority of these students have long treks to school.

A lot of students drop off in middle school and this is for a few different reasons.

Sometimes the girls are not permitted to walk so far to school. Some conservative communities don’t believe in educating girls through high school. Other girls get pregnant or go to live with their boyfriend and are systematically barred from continuing school.

Panamanian law states that they should still be allowed to study, but traditionally this law is not enforced since it is believed that their first responsibility should be their child or husband
Panamanian law states that they should still be allowed to study, but traditionally this law is not enforced since it is believed that their first responsibility should be their child or husband.

The main reason for boys not continuing onto high school is for lack of interest/motivation and no authority figures (like a parent, police or social workers) to require them to attend.

Panamanian law states that it is mandatory for all children to complete 9th grade.

Thankfully, the Panamanian government is making some headway on improving education for all Panamanians, and this help is reaching the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé too.

First of all, they give scholarships of $20/month to all needy students to help them pay for necessary schools supplies and other incidentals. The government also offers scholarships to the top performing high school students so that they can continue their studies at a University.

Children in primary school have started to receive free backpacks and school supplies at the beginning of each school year.
Children in primary school have started to receive free backpacks and school supplies at the beginning of each school year.

Most stunning of all was Panama President Ricardo Martinelli’s announcement in 2010 that the government would gift every single high school student a laptop.

The first computers were given at the start of the 2012 school year and they have kept their promise so far, gifting the new 10th grade classes their laptops at the start of the 2013 and 2014 school years.
The first computers were given at the start of the 2012 school year and they have kept their promise so far, gifting the new 10th grade classes their laptops at the start of the 2013 and 2014 school years.

This has been a huge leap for Comarca students to jump into the current century’s technology! Some high schools in the Comarca also receive free internet service through the government program “Internet For Everyone”, so now students are learning how to browse the internet, send and receive email, and connect with their friends through social media.

A few foreign organizations focused on improving education for the Ngäbe are Few For Change and Give & Surf.

Few For Change is an organization which gives scholarships to high-achieving students for tuition and other school-related expenses. This scholarship allows the individual to continue studying, when normally their family wouldn’t be able to afford it.

Students who've received scholarships from Few for Change.
Students who've received scholarships from Few for Change.

Give & Surf provides preschool, summer school, after-school care, an English program, and other community programs to an indigenous community located just outside of the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé.

There is still a long way to go, but it’s uplifting to know that the journey will not be lonely.

LEARN MORE ABOUT PANAMA'S INDIGENOUS' COMMUNITIES... »

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