Rebuilding, Re-Energizing Peace Corps V
* REBUILDING AND RE-ENERGIZING THE PEACE CORPS V
Monday, July 6, 2009
Dear Thirsters Worldwide,
Here is another account of the Peace Corps experience and promise, from Dominican Republic RPCVs Roger and Margaret Brindle, career-long educators, which provides useful cultural and historical context.
Thanks, Roger and Margaret!
BY ROGER AND MARGARET BRINDLE:
Great thread on rebuilding the Peace Corps. Paul Doughty's piece on Peru was spot on (and Riall Nolan's response a nice, balanced summary). Our experience might be interesting further confirmation of their views.
Margaret and I were PC volunteers in the Dominican Republic from 1966 to '68, engaged in a project called the "Plan Piloto del Este", which was a very ambitious 3-year in-service program for rural elementary school teachers. The average rural school consisted of a single palm-thatched, dirt-floor classroom in which a teacher with typically a sixth grade education or less taught a first grade class in the mornings and a mixed second and third grade in the afternoons. Each classroom had a blackboard and students had cheap notebooks and pencils to copy their lessons. There were no books. The educational statistics of the day were appalling: by the end of third grade 88% of rural students had dropped out and were typically working in the cane fields, helping their parents. The purpose of our project was to organize a six week summer program and Saturday classes for the teachers that would give them the equivalent of a high school education and attempt to modernize their teaching methods. There were five centers with six to ten volunteers in each center, coordinating the teaching with Dominican urban teachers: the Dominicans taught language, literature and history and we taught science, math and methodology classes. During the week, each volunteer had a route of up to fifteen schools that they regularly visited (some so remote we had to ride in on horseback and stay overnight), taught demonstration lessons, observed and coached the teachers, etc. The promise made to the teachers was that, at the end of a successful three years, each teacher would get his/her high school diploma and gain status equivalent to an urban teacher, which would include a significant raise in pay. The program was a tremendous sacrifice for the teachers who had to come in for all those weekends, live in the site cities for the summer program, prepare classes more thoroughly for us, while doing regular teaching, raising their own families, etc.
The project had some strengths: it was highly structured and involved close coordination with the Dominican Ministry of Education. We did a pretty good job of teaching our high school subjects, a much poorer job trying to adapt US teaching methods to Dominican realities. The structure gave us specific goals on which we could focus our energies.
On the other hand, it tended to make it easier for volunteers to become somewhat isolated from their immediate community. It was often hard to get out to the schools and there were so many volunteers in a site that they tended to hang together more than they should. In our town, Higuey, the team became obsessed with the lack of appropriate teaching materials and tried to virtually mimeograph our own student textbooks, which led to many late night production sessions, but less contact with Dominicans, etc.
One "combat story" encapsulates the tensions in the project best: we were all appalled at the low priority given rural schools. (In Trujillo's day he had used rural schools as sinecures to pay off political faithful -- the first education minister after the revolution, Hidalgo Justo, went around the entire country with an armed bodyguard personally paying all the teachers en situ, because, even though there were so many schools unmanned, the salaries were still being collected by El Jefe's cronies.) We eventually organized a petition drive to put pressure on the Peace Corps/USAID mission to "provide one box of chalk per rural teacher, per year" or threaten to close the program down. This led to a session in the ambassador's office during which he made it clear to us hotheads that he was the country mission chief and he would decide when and if the program were ever to be shut down. We went back to teaching. Of course, in the end this was a prophetic encounter. We were part of the first group of volunteers, so we were out of country when, at the end of three years, the first group of teachers "graduated". Sure enough, they got a paper diploma, but not the increase in pay. The projected continuation of the 3-year program to other parts of the country didn't happen.
Now we had been sufficiently embarrassed by this news that we let forty years go by before we went back to the DR to see whether what we had done had had any effect. Clearly most of the change in the DR had nothing to do with any PC/USAID efforts: the town of Higuey in our day was about 30,000 people mostly growing sugar cane or herding cattle; its population is now almost 150,000, and is the primary logistical/ service support for the huge Punta Cana resort area. In our day we could motorbike out to swim at beaches as nice as Waikiki with not another soul in sight. Margaret used to visit a school in a town called El Cortecito that was a tiny fishing village in those days; it is now almost buried in all inclusive resorts, the beaches of which look like Coney Island in the summer. Amazing. But we did find a few teachers who had been in the Plan and discovered that they did eventually get the recognition that they deserved and their increase in pay about five years after the first graduating class. My theory is that because we had kept the teachers together for those three years, they naturally got organized themselves and eventually put enough pressure on the Ministry of Education to force them to honor the promises that had been made. The teachers we visited seemed grateful for our efforts and were overjoyed to see us. So, perhaps in a left handed way, the Plan did have some of the effects we intended.
Of course the biggest changes from the program were in ourselves. We adopted and raised a neighbor child from Higuey, Maribel, who is now an effective bilingual elementary school teacher in San Francisco. Our Peace Corps service propelled me into a PhD. program in comparative education at Berkeley and gave me a second quasi-administrative career after 17 years in a classroom. Margaret and I both worked for most of a decade with a program called Amigos de las Americas, which trains US high school students to do public health work in summers in Latin America. We are now virtually retired in Mexico, which we probably would not have chosen to do without having the language, thanks to PC service. Etcetera, etc.
In short, to us the Peace Corps is a wonderful program of "win-win" for both the host countries and the US and it should be expanded to the maximum possible, consistent with reasonable effectiveness in the host countries. My experience training high school kids to do similar work is that most folks can be sufficiently trained to be of some help in Third World settings and the effect in changing the lives and perspectives of US citizens is so dramatic that it is worth supporting and expanding almost on those grounds alone. If we are ever going to have a foreign policy that depends upon diplomacy and projecting "soft power", rather than a foreign policy based primarily on military force, the Peace Corps is the most important educational experience we can offer America.
Roger (and Margaret!)