By Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan
ECATEPEC, Mexico -- Jesus Santana Hernandez opened his refrigerator and looked at the contents: a bottle of water and an onion. His mother was at work washing dishes in a taco joint. So it fell to Jesus, a wiry 12-year-old, to feed his three younger brothers and sisters. The onion was no help. He grabbed the water.
Jesus had homework to get to -- math, Spanish and science -- but there was no time. He scooped lumpy cereal out of a box and mixed it with the water. He propped up his 10-month-old sister on an unmade bed in the corner of the kitchen and tried to comfort her with cold mush. She cried.
Jesus is in the sixth grade, the last year of primary school in Mexico, and confronts a decision faced by children his age throughout the country. According to government education officials, at least 300,000 Mexican children each year drop out of school after the sixth grade. Some last a year or two more, but the average Mexican has left school by age 14.
A child from a working-poor family, Jesus is a smart boy with natural ability and ambition who wants to continue his studies. But he must deal with the same obstacles that block the paths of millions of children here: pressure to help struggling families by getting a job; uninspiring public schools; and low expectations of parents who think that more than six years of school is a luxury.
Mexico's poor educational achievement is at the heart of why this nation of 100 million has remained stuck economically on the ladder of nations. Unable to compete with better-trained workforces elsewhere, Mexico has largely settled for a niche in low-skilled assembly jobs. Now it is even losing those to China, where low-skilled workers are paid less. Business leaders here are pleading for an education revolution.
A generation ago, Mexico and South Korea ranked near the bottom in academic achievement among the 30 nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, said OECD official Andreas Schleicher. Today, among people age 25 to 34, Mexico ranks last in the same OECD studies, while South Korea has risen to No. 1. South Korea's highly skilled workers produce some of the world's most popular cars and electronics, but Mexico's workforce still relies largely on sweat.
"It's not that Mexico has declined, it's just that everyone else has progressed," Schleicher said. He said one explanation for the stagnation is clear: Public education is nearly a religion in South Korea, while Mexico ranks last among OECD countries in investment in primary education. "Mexico and other countries that have not kept pace with everyone else in education have paid a heavy price, economically and socially."
Jesus's stepfather, Mario Cruz Diaz, 40, is a mason's assistant. He went to school for a total of three months and has trouble reading and writing his children's names. He wants Jesus to stay in school because even low-paying factories prefer that their employees have a high school education these days. But he's not sure the family can afford to keep Jesus sitting in a classroom when he could be working.
Jesus, well groomed and with an almost adult seriousness, wants to be a lawyer. "You don't get anywhere if you don't go to school," he said. "I'm going to try to stay in."
But nobody in his family has ever made it past sixth grade.
A Four-Hour School Day
Jesus walked his little brother, Yair, a giggly first-grader with cheap metal caps on his front teeth, up a hill to school. They passed the vast city dump in Ecatepec, a worn-down city of 2.5 million people just northeast of Mexico City. They arrived at the Americas Elementary School just before classes began at 1:30 p.m.
Americas is a typical Mexican school, under-funded and struggling, where education seems more like a pastime than a goal. If Jesus is looking for inspiration to stay in school, it is hard to find between these crumbling walls.
Even the hours are stacked against his success: Most Mexican elementary schools run two shifts. The first is from 8 a.m. until 12:30 p.m.; then different students fill the classrooms from 1:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Too many students and too few school buildings have forced the split schedule upon millions of children. The primary school day in all public schools is four hours, with a half-hour for lunch and recess, compared with six or more hours in private schools.
Mexico's teachers' union, one of the world's largest and most powerful, has strongly resisted efforts to lengthen the public school day; its members earn two full salaries for teaching the double shift.
Jesus, spiffy in his school uniform, navy blue sweater and gray slacks, dropped off Yair at his first-grade class and then took a seat in Veronica Montoya's sixth-grade classroom. Montoya, 26, teaches every morning at a private school across town, where students learn things Jesus has never heard of, such as Google and Gandhi.
At Americas, where as many as 45 children squeeze into a classroom, there are no computers and students have to bring their own toilet paper. Parents chipped in to paint the school baby blue two years ago, but the walls are already peeling like sunburned skin.
In Jesus's classroom, bits of the ceiling are falling in. There is little on the walls, except a newspaper clipping about Arnold Schwarzenegger.
After Jesus and his classmates took their places at 1:30 p.m., Montoya walked in and told them to open their Spanish books. For the next 15 minutes, she stood outside and argued with a student and his mother. He was one of three students she had suspended the day before because they hadn't done any work in the first two months of school. His mother was angry. She told Montoya that she had to work, and she had nowhere else to put her son in the afternoons.
Montoya said many children receive no academic support at home. But she said the saddest cases for her are students such as Jesus, who want to study but find it hard because of economic factors.
"Jesus is a good student, but sometimes he doesn't do his homework," she said. "He studies, but it's a question of time. He also has to help the family because they don't have many resources. If he had more time to study, he would be a better student."
For the next hour, Montoya walked from student to student, wordlessly correcting homework. Most of the rest of the pupils chitchatted. But Jesus kept his nose in his schoolbook, reading quietly and writing down answers to grammar questions, paying little attention to the banter around him.
For the first hour and fifteen minutes of a four-hour school day, there had been no lessons taught in Jesus's classroom, which is not uncommon. The week before, Jesus had no school on Wednesday because Montoya had a doctor's appointment, and there is no budget for substitute teachers. There were no classes Friday because of teacher training. He stayed home another day because his uniform was wet: "I have to wash my pants myself, and they weren't dry in time." He watched television instead.
At 2:45, Montoya led the children out to a few desks scattered around the playground. She broke them into small groups and told them to come up with a mock evening newscast, with news stories and commercials. Then she went back inside. She said she had paperwork to do.
For the next hour, the children pondered the assignment, but mostly enjoyed the sunshine and chatted. Across the playground, school workers got ready for lunchtime, setting out little cups of strawberry yogurt, sprinkled with chocolate-coated corn flakes, and a spread of candy and sugar-spiked junk food.
At 3:45, the students filed back into the classroom to present their skits. One group announced a car bomb in Russia. Another read a news item about a babysitter who poured hot soup on some children. Jesus and his group read one about a drunk driver causing an explosion at a gas station. The silly skits made everybody giggle. This was fun.
It was 4 o'clock. Time for recess and candy. If Jesus had learned much of anything at school today, it was not obvious.
In a recent OECD study of the reading ability of 15-year-olds in 27 countries, Mexico ranked last, with 44 percent reading at only the most rudimentary level.
Always Another Fee
Late one morning, Jesus sat at the kitchen table and tried to do his math homework.
He carefully counted the sides on a geometric shape with the tip of his pencil. Then he took his worn dictionary and matched a picture in the mathematics section with the shape on his homework. "Octagon," he wrote in his notebook.
Jesus had time to study because he didn't have to work today. But the pressure to earn money for his family is already bearing down on him, and like nearly half of his classmates, he spends his mornings working. He has a job in a neighbor's yard stuffing punching bags with sawdust for about 40 cents a bag. He also keeps bags of ice in the freezer and sells them for 10 cents.
"Every penny in our pockets helps," said Cruz, his stepfather.
Cruz said Jesus's schooling is a severe drain on limited finances. In the best weeks he and his wife together earn $120, he said. From that, they pay for rent, food, transportation and clothes for a family of six. They pay an inscription fee of $15 each to send Jesus and Yair to the Americas School. That pays for such things as chalk, light bulbs, bleach and cleaning the toilets. Parents also pay for uniforms, books, pencils, field trips and food for a never-ending string of festivals and holidays.
Supplies are so short that students are required to bring four pesos (about 36 cents) to pay to take the monthly exam; the school needs the money to buy the paper.
Mexico invests more heavily in higher education and has several of North America's leading public universities, but they tend to benefit the best students and the upper classes.
"There's always something you have to pay for -- an exam, a uniform, inscription fee. Public schools in Mexico are not free," Cruz said.
The government of President Vicente Fox has greatly expanded an anti-poverty program that pays some parents every month they keep their children in school. But Cruz said he was not considered poor enough to qualify for those benefits.
"We have never gotten anything from the government," he said, noting that his toddler, Yeslie, will start kindergarten next year, giving him a third set of school fees to pay.
Those fees are collected by Eduardo Castillo Hernandez, the school janitor and head of the parent-teacher association. Castillo knows how those fees and other school costs determine whether children stay in school or drop out. Particularly costly, he said, was the $30 gym uniform for the older children, he said. So his daughters, 14 and 15, quit school when they were 12; they now work in a restaurant.
On this morning, Cruz was rising late. After two weeks without work, he had been back on the job the night before, laying tiles in a restaurant kitchen in Mexico City, and soon would be returning there. He wanted to keep the money coming while the work lasted.
"Jesus is a hard worker, and it would be better for him to try to go on to secondary school," Cruz said. "But these days it's more difficult to support your family. There are fewer jobs, and there's less food to go around."
Cruz said that when he tries to get work on a job site, those who are chosen are the ones with more skills. Still, he said, he wouldn't force Jesus to stay in school. "He should stay there only if he likes it and makes the most of it."
Cruz and Gloria Hernandez Rico, 33, Jesus's mother, have been together, but not married, for nearly nine years. He has a 15-year-old daughter from a previous marriage; she has a 15-year-old son. Both children dropped out of school after sixth grade to work. The seventh grade marks the beginning of middle school, which is often located farther from students' home. In rural areas, the seventh grade can take hours to reach by bus, another reason 12-year-olds tend to drop out.
Hernandez also quit school after sixth grade 20 years ago, a reminder of how little has changed in a generation. Nobody else in her family had much schooling, but she said everybody was doing fine. "If he quits now," she said of Jesus, "I wouldn't say anything." She said he likes to work to bring in money the family needs.
Jesus was still studying at the kitchen table, next to the small single bed he shares with Yair. "I know if I am going to be a lawyer, I need to keep studying," he said.
He worked on long division problems, with his nose an inch from the paper. He has a knack for shutting out everything around him, from the chatter in his classroom to the economic realities dragging him toward the same hard life his parents have known.
He wrote and erased. How many times does seven go into 32? He flipped the worn pages of his notebook, struggling for the answer.
Then the stew needed stirring again.
Researcher Bart Beeson in Mexico City contributed to this report.