At Escuela Normal 6, a student skateboards idly down an empty hallway usually brimming with tides of students bustling to or from classes. At Escuela Técnica 30, student leaders slouch on stools, exhausted from running workshops, organising football tournaments, caring for younger classmates, and even cooking meals from donated food. “I come home more tired from a day in occupation than on a regular school day,” says protest organiser Marcelo, a technical school student specialising in chemistry. His counterpart, Joaquín, studying towards a technician’s degree in construction, does not even have that luxury; he only returns home to shower. Life at over 40 of Buenos Aires’ student-occupied secondary schools drags on like that of a siege: tiring, uncomfortable, at times monotonous. And indeed the comparison is not farfetched. Marcelo sighs, “This is unfortunately an arm wrestling match between the students and the government to see who wears out first.”
Normal 6 and Técnica 30 are two of more than 40 Buenos Aires secondary schools that were held under student occupation in protest of curricular reforms until yesterday. The changes will align Buenos Aires’ secondary school curricula with the rest of the nation but students say it will lower the quality of their education. Yesterday marked one month since the tomas, “takeovers”, halted classes and engaged the city’s Minister of Education Esteban Bullrich in an antagonistic political deadlock.
The New Secondary School
In May 2009, the Federal Education Council, a body composed of representatives from across Argentina and presided over by the federal Ministry of Education, issued a resolution mandating that each of Argentina’s 23 provinces and the city of Buenos Aires conform to a guideline, the New Secondary School (NES), that would update and align the country’s secondary school curricula.
In May 2012, in accordance with that resolution, the City of Buenos Aires announced a series of curricular reforms which would affect the city’s 159 public secondary schools and the 223,000 students they educate per year. Reforms include replacing specialised courses with more general education hours.
The most drastic reforms would affect technical schools, which would consequently see a reduction in laboratory and workshop instruction. The 28 specialties currently offered would be collapsed into ten, and instead of graduating as certified technicians, alumni would instead receive a normal secondary school degree with a supplementary “orientation”. Although the degree would be valid outside of the capital, it would legally allow graduates to perform fewer and more basic tasks. Technical secondary schools would inaugurate those changes in March 2013, at the beginning of the next school year. Normal, commercial, and artistic secondary schools would wait until March 2014.
The reform drew criticism from students, many of whom feel that it dilutes specialised education and that they were excluded from the planning process. They voiced their concerns during the planning stage with demonstrations, blocking traffic, and marches. City officials say they met with technical school representatives, including teachers and administrators, while designing their NES.
Exactly which teachers were invited and how inclusively remains questionable. The Chief of Cabinet at the Buenos Aires Ministry of Education, Diego Fernández, claimed that the Ministry met with a democratically elected coordinator for each secondary school as well as three teachers and a student representative for each technical school. Ariel (who requested his surname be withheld), a civics and geography teacher who, due to the tomas, is still unable to teach at any of his four schools after two weeks, comments, “[Education Minister Esteban] Bullrich said he included the teachers, but I haven’t received any invitation.” To his knowledge, neither have any of his colleagues. Students claim the meetings were scheduled only hours before they took place or during teachers’ vacation days, throwing doubt on the Ministry’s intentions.
Many teachers have also objected to the changes from a pedagogical standpoint. “Among the teachers I have talked to, the feeling is that whoever [created the curriculum] doesn’t know the situation in schools or much about education.” Under the new curricula, Ariel, trained as a political scientist, would teach “Civics and Health”. “Neither a doctor nor I could teach that course well because they’re mixing two completely different things together,” he says, shaking his head.
Opponents of the reform also claim that the announced changes include the elimination of night courses, which would discriminate against those financially obligated to work during the day, many of whom are adults who returned to school. “A 40-year-old man who has to feed his family can’t leave his work to study in the morning. That’s one of our concerns: they’re taking away the opportunity to study from a lot of people who really want it,” Marcelo explains. The Buenos Aires Ministry of Education maintains that “The night courses will continue and the possibility of closing them was never entertained.”
Students have been careful to clarify that they do not necessarily object to the addition of new coursework, but rather to the displacement of specialised subjects they say are vital, and to the dismantlement of technical degrees. “Technicians—engineers, architects, chemists, electro-mechanics—move the country forward. If you lower the quality of their degree, how are they going to work so Argentina keeps growing?” Marcelo complains.
The Standoff: Tomas vs. “the Corresponding Channels”
“But this dialogue, in the case of the students, has a limit: you can’t discuss which subjects they should study and how they should study them with a student. To argue the contrary is to adopt a position of absolute demagoguery.”
Bullrich’s comments, published in La Nación, pinpoint the heart of the conflict: how much student participation is democratic and how much is disruptive?
The student protestors’ leverage of choice has been tomas, takeovers in which students physically occupy the school buildings, halting classes and ousting teachers and administrators. The idea is much like that of a sit-in. Combined with street demonstrations, the tomas draw media and public attention, mounting pressure on the Ministry of Education to address their cause. Student coalition president and 5th-year student Natan admits that the tomas have repercussions for the community, but defends them, explaining, “It’s the only method to be found in which we can achieve what we are asking for. We understand that it is invasive—for the parents, for the students, for the professors—but the method that pushes us to a conclusion is the tomas.”
The tomas kicked off on 17th September with little more than ten schools, a remarkable number relative to previous demonstrations, but the list lengthened even more as the weeks passed. By early October, students had occupied over 50 (some sources say as high as 62) of Buenos Aires’ 159 secondary schools. That number hung at slightly over 40 until yesterday.
Educational controversies in Buenos Aires frequently peak in toma impasses. Student protestors use occupations to object to issues ranging from facility renovations to disciplinary actions to privatisation of photocopying services, but they rarely, if ever, escalate to this scale or length. During his two years in office, Bullrich responded unsympathetically to previous tomas to the point of asking the Justice Department to intervene.
This time, the Minister of Education refused to speak directly with students, insisting in La Nación, “The school takeovers are a direct attack on public education.” Instead, he said the appropriate channels of communication were available to students through school officials. “The students are being listened to,” he declared. “I have had a permanent dialogue with the corresponding channels, which are the [education] system directors and supervisors.” Students aim the brunt of their protests at securing an audience with Bullrich and eventually, a seat at the NES decision-making table.
Face to Face: Curricula Debates
On 2nd October, the Buenos Aires public defender filed a claim on behalf of the students. The petition yield a judicial ordinance from judge Elena Liberatori obligating the Ministry of Education to meet with students, citing a section of the Federal Education Council’s resolution which requires NES execution to include student input.
A meeting on 5th October yielded what looked like a breakthrough. Bullrich agreed to postpone changes slated for March 2013 by one year, giving the parties time to come to a satisfactory agreement. Towards those objectives, he proposed a series of nine meetings in which the Ministry of Education and the students would discuss NES implementation.
When asked why they did not take legal action earlier, which prompted Bullrich to grant an audience, and instead initiated the more disruptive tomas, students say they predicted Bullrich’s quick acquiescence and felt a court injunction would be too heavy-handed. They never anticipated the dispute would escalate to this scale.
Student coalitions took the long weekend to deliberate over the proposal and ultimately split. Five schools comprising the Federation of Secondary School Students (FES) accepted. The Student Coordinator Base (CEB) claims the offer is toothless and that the letter through which it was extended lacked a signature. They insist upon an explicit decision-making role in the meetings and until then, vow to continue the tomas.
The “Partial Victory”
After another week, a decisive win in the “arm-wrestling match” seemed distant and the fatigue of life in occupation only greater. On 16th October, just one day short of the movement’s one-month anniversary, the majority of participating schools announced their return to classes. A small minority (sources estimate under 10) remain in toma indefinitely.
It was the exhaustion, not a concessionary surrender from the Ministry, which convinced those lifting their tomas to take up their normal routines again. Cynthia, 18, a student at music school Pedro Esnaola, explains the decisions behind what she calls a “partial victory”, “We’re not lifting the tomas because we won in absolute, but because we’re too worn out, we can’t continue.” Among student activists, the consensus is that the possibility of more tomas this year is slim, but they vow to continue lobbying through other means. Cynthia explains, “It’s lifting the toma, but not it’s giving up the fight. Not at all.”
Mixed feelings pervaded the crowd that gathered yesterday in front of the city’s Ministry of Education to mark the end of the ordeal. Pedro, 15, also of Esnaola, said, “It was a really big effort on the part of the students, for which we are very proud,” after describing Bullrich’s actions as “a embarrassment for the citizens of this city.” Juan, 17, who attends Escuela Media 1 Julio Cortázar, admitted he was glad to hit the books again since after all, “that is why we are fighting.” Cynthia said she felt “a little of everything,” from sadness at the Ministry’s response to happiness at the strength the movement had developed during the month.
Now that the Ministry and most of its pupils have come to an agreement, classes at these schools can resume as normal. Or rather, almost normal. The Ministry of Education decided to prolong the school year until 30th December to recover lost instructional hours. On the one hand, students and teachers will not have to rush through material to finish the school year on time. On the other, both must endure classes through sweltering heat and holiday season distraction.
As for the few who remain entrenched in their schools, they remain devoted to the cause, yet all the more desperate for conclusion. Técnica 30 is one of them. “The truth is, we feel that we do not have support from anyone, that we are alone and that we are not going to be able to do anything!” Joaquín reports. Student leaders say that despite their fellows’ withdrawal, they still have no intentions of lifting the toma without signed confirmation of Bullrich’s proposal. “If [the toma] lasts until the summer, we’ll build a pool here!” joked Marcelo when asked exactly how long they were prepared to continue. Joaquín grinned next to him, and then declared solemnly, “As long as necessary. We prefer to lose a year than lose the degree.”
What do porteños think about the tomas? Click here to find out.