What's Behind the Mass Student Takeover of Argentina's High Schools?

Three decades after a brutal government crackdown against youth activists, a new generation of students is finding a political voice.

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Students at Claudia Maria Falcone High School in Buenos Aires (Emma Sokoloff-Rubin)

BUENOS AIRES -- At a public high school here in Argentina's capital last month, a representative from the city's ministry of education kept talking over the students. At one point in the meeting, a high-school senior turned to him and said: "I'm talking to you." The student had a point -- he and his classmates were running the meeting. In fact, they were running the school.

That was 31 days ago. Now students are not only running Claudia Maria Falcone, the school where this meeting took place, but have taken over 50 schools throughout the city in protest of curriculum changes they say were made without student input. The level of student engagement in education policy here, and the actions they take to make their voices heard, is almost unimaginable in the United States, where much of the energy that drives education reform comes from the top. Here, students are literally taking schools into their own hands. They debate policies, manage communication with the Ministry of Education, and oversee building cleaning and security. They're also missing weeks of classes in a nation where students' academic performance is devastatingly low.

Students plan to lift the takeovers later this week, but the days that nearly 30,000 students spent in occupied schools will have a lasting effect. Debates about the controversial takeovers come down to more than missed school days. People on all sides frame their opinions in terms of what it means to defend public education and what they believe protests should look like in a democracy.

To enter Falcone High School, students slip under the painted canvas banner they strung across the front gate to announce the takeover. On September 14, in a meeting run by Falcone's Centro de Estudiantes, a sort of highly politicized student council, a majority of the student body voted in favor of the takeover. This had happened often enough that Falcone's principal knew to call the Ministry representative assigned to the school, who alerted the Minister of Education of Buenos Aires, Esteban Bullrich. Since the takeover officially began three days later, there have been students in the building at all times.

Students spend nights on classroom floors and most of the day on the ground floor of the atrium-style school building. A staircase zigzags up one wall, linking three floors of open hallways where graffiti painted during past takeovers blends with the half-finished images added during this one. Hand-written posters display a list of committees (press, cleaning, finances, food, and culture) with members' first names, a list of rules ("No smoking weed on school grounds, no drinking, no smoking cigarettes inside, only outside after 6:30 p.m. ...") and daily, sometimes-followed schedules developed by the culture committee. Schedules feature everything from planning meetings to theater workshops and card games. Sometimes Falcone feels full and noisy, as on a normal school day, while other times it feels more like a school in the late afternoon, when everyone's gone or packing to go. Though student leaders expect everyone to come to school during takeovers, many students stay home.

The premise of the controversial curriculum changes, slated to take effect in technical schools in 2013 and in other public schools the following year, is the redistribution of class time from specialized subjects, such as hydraulics or information technology, to core subjects such as history and language arts. Students would still have specialized classes, but those classes would be given less time. The curriculum changes were prompted by an order from the National Council on Education to standardize curricula in public schools across the country, so that diplomas from each state carry the same value and students' whose families move can easily switch schools. Student leaders believe the Ministry of Education also planned to eliminate the night school option at several schools. The Ministry insists this was never part of the plan.

Students who oppose the curriculum changes do so primarily on two grounds: First, they argue that specialized courses are essential to their educations and future capacity to find work, and second, they believe that students should be consulted about decisions that affect public education.

Leaders of Falcone's Centro de Estudiantes planned the takeover with student representatives across the city in a group called the Corriente Educativa de Base (CEB). Student leaders stay in touch via text messages, phone calls, and a CEB Facebook group. They also meet regularly to plan next steps. "Communication's not hard," said Gabriel Lopes, president of the Centro de Estudiantes at Juan Bautista Alberdi. "We all know each other, anyway." Though rare in the rest of the country, school takeovers are fairly common in Buenos Aires, and Gabriel has participated in four takeovers in the past three years.

School employees across the city continue to receive their salaries during the takeovers. Students at some schools prevent all authorities from entering the building, but Falcone teachers and administrators are allowed inside. They often lean over the second and third floor balconies to watch what might, depending on the moment, look like a vibrant political protest or a giant slumber party. They might see students drafting letters to the Minister of Education, playing Twister, sweeping the floor, eating lunch, giving television interviews (students at one school wouldn't let a reporter enter because, as they put it, "we haven't developed our media strategy"), reading, dancing, or running workshops for their peers.

Many of these students' parents were raised during the brutal military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976-83. Gabriel said that his mom supports his activism, but she, like many of her generation, grew up with the warning no te metas -- don't get involved. The school takeover going on right now was timed to coincide with the anniversary of a night in 1976 when seven high school students were disappeared by the dictatorship. Gabriel and his mom both know what would have happened to a student leader like him back then. Yet at the meeting at Falcone the night the takeovers began, parents advocated for their children's right to be heard, challenging the ministry representative head-on.

"It's not like the students came here to screw around," one parent insisted. "They're protesting, debating. This is an example of citizenship and democracy."

The tradition of school takeovers reflects an approach to citizenship students raised in post-dictatorship Argentina have observed their whole lives. Jason Beech, director of the School of Education at San Andrés University in Buenos Aires, believes the takeovers are "at least in part a reflection of what happens in Argentine society." When people want to change something, he said, usually "they don't go and talk to a senator or other government official. Instead, they occupy a street and do some kind of protest that makes a lot of noise or will be picked up by the media. The students are learning about how politics function in Argentina, and this is how it is."

Students in favor of the takeovers argue that occupying schools is the only way to be heard. Joaquín Adaro, a member of the Centro de Estudiantes at Falcone, asked students at a nearby school to vote in favor of a takeover "so that the people from the Ministry of Education, from the government, will listen to us more quickly. We have to do what we're doing so that they listen." Each of the fifty takeovers was decided by majority vote. The students who voted to keep school in session--because they are behind in classes, agree with the curriculum changes, or don't believe takeovers are the way to make change--are out of luck and out of class.

Joaquín believes that another kind of learning is taking place. "This is how you learn to write proposals, to debate and defend your ideas," he said. Through the takeovers, "you learn things that will serve you when you leave school for the world, because other people won't stand up for you. This is how you learn to stand up for yourself."

Gabriel from Juan Bautista Alberdi says takeovers are a surefire way to get attention. He and other students and teachers cited examples of past takeovers, such as one that, they said, pushed the Ministry of Education to repair dilapidated school buildings, and another that brought heating to a school so cold that students wore gloves to class.

The Ministry argues that students are already given plenty of opportunities to express opinions about their educations, and if they want more input on the curricular changes, they can make that known through other means. "If you're not in agreement [with what the government is doing]" said Sergio Siciliano, director of Teacher Training and Affairs at the Ministry, "you have to join a political party and convince people that the current government is bad and that they should vote for yours." He believes that what the students are doing is illegal and fundamentally undemocratic.

Minister Bullrich declined to comment. He has argued in public statements that the takeovers were driven by political parties and unions, not the students themselves. His recent op-ed, published in the prominent Argentine newspaper La Nación, seems like a direct answer to students' claim that they staged takeovers in defense of public education. It is titled "Public education can only be defended when schools are open."

Whether or not the curricular changes in question would improve the quality of public education in Buenos Aires, the educational cost of the takeovers is high, especially in a country where students' academic performance is so low. Argentine tenth graders ranked 58th out of 65 countries on the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment exam, known as the PISA, which is widely used to assess student performance worldwide. Only 50% of Argentine students who start high school actually graduate. In order to make up days lost to takeovers this year, some of the schools will reschedule final exams from the end of the Argentine school year, in December, to February 2013. Current seniors who planned to start classes at the public University of Buenos Aires in February won't be able to enroll at the University until they've finished exams, which means waiting until 2014 to start college.

Though the Argentine Constitution guarantees the rights to protest and to education, students don't have the legal right to suspend classes and spend the night on school property. Thus far Bullrich hasn't sent the police into occupied schools, but his attitude toward the takeovers continues to reflect what he said in a televised interview last year: "We don't accept takeovers as a way to do politics. We talk to people face to face, and we discuss what people want to discuss. But closing a school or taking it over is not a way to debate or defend ideas."

Under orders from Judge Elena Liberatori of Buenos Aires, Bullrich has met with student representatives from occupied schools twice since the takeovers began. He also began a series of "Dialogue and Participation Forums" in which students, parents, teachers, and alumni can discuss proposed changes with the Ministry. Two forums have already taken place, and six more are scheduled for late October and November. There's no guarantee that students will agree with the changes that are eventually made, but Sofia Piccolomino, a senior at Falcone, believes that after a month-long standoff against teenagers who refused to leave their schools, policymakers will have to give students' opinions more weight. "Every year more students participate in takeovers," she said. "Now the Minister of Education knows we fight until he meets our demands."