|Children of the Ngobe-Bugle tribe attend class in Chiriqi, a rural area in Panama|
CHIRIQI, Panama, 17 February 2005 - For many indigenous children in the Mironó district in rural Panama, education is a challenge that goes far beyond the demands of the classroom.
Every morning, they leave their farms and walk great distances, over hills and through rivers, to the nearest government school. It is an exhausting and often dangerous trek. During the rainy season, parents stop sending their children to school because the rivers become too treacherous to cross.
These conditions have caused attendance in rural schools to plummet, with 45 per cent of indigenous children not even enrolled. Because many children simply cannot make it to school, UNICEF is bringing school to them.
As part of an education initiative, UNICEF is helping to set up small schools in rural communities. These “community schools” are staffed by a single teacher and average anywhere from 10-30 students. They are a convenient and safe alternative for children, and discourage parents from sending them to work as coffee pickers—a common practice.
The classrooms are comprised of students of varying age groups. The teacher often recruits the older children to assist her in tutoring the young. "Some learn faster than others. Once they learn, they help the other students catch up. Some are brothers, so the big brother helps the little brother learn faster," says Digna Sanjur, a community school teacher in the town of Chiriqi.
According to Esteban Flores, 11, one of Ms. Sanjur’s 17 students, the schools can also help the poorest children in the area. "There are many children who don't go to school. They only work because they don't have the clothes for school or even a notebook to write in. Their parents are very poor,” he said.
This year, UNICEF has already established three pilot schools, such as the one in Chiriqi. By 2006, they hope to enable 10 more schools in the district of Mironó.
Under the slogan “All Boys and Girls to School,” UNICEF is vigorously working alongside government officials in three major indigenous districts to encourage children to attend school. In 2003, UNICEF representatives went door-to-door to persuade parents to send their children to school. Thanks to their efforts, 326 children enrolled for the 2004 school year.
“We want to encourage attendance, create local committees, and make everyone in the community become a friend of education,” said Program Director for UNICEF in Pánama Raisa Ruíz.
Access to solid education is something that will greatly benefit these remote communities. In time, students like Esteban will take over Ms. Sanjur’s job and become teachers to new generations of children.