In December 2017, during the end-of-year ceremony at the Instituto Superior Estrada -located in Santa Teresa, province of Santa Fe-, the director of the school named the students who were finishing high school at that time. He for the first time also mentioned, one by one, all the classmates who had dropped out of school along the way.
“Seeing the teary eyes of many boys who at that time realized that in five years they had lost more than half of their classmates was something that mobilized us and marked a lot in the school,” he told THE NATION Ariel Rotondo, director of the establishment since 2010.
Rotondo knows school dropout first hand: he himself stopped studying in fourth year after having a very bad time in a school in Buenos Aires where, he said, they discriminated against him for being from the interior. That experience marked him forever and would become one of the fundamental engines for generating change in his community.
“That bad experience was what made me start thinking that I could not accept that the boys dropped out, I had to do something so that they would not repeat, so that they all went to school and finished. When I became a director that was in my head and I started to think about how to make it possible, especially since in the town only 4 out of 10 boys who entered school finished. The majority repeated in the second or third year and another large part dropped out in the first year”, said Rotondo.
For five years he studied the educational trajectories of each one of the students and in the middle of 2015, already knowing in depth the nearly 150 boys who attended the school, proposed to make a change in the school format that would break with the usual paradigm of what a school is.
“I proposed ending written tests, lectures and grading as we knew them and starting teamwork with an achievement-based advancement system of the students. We began to think that each boy was a school in itself and that we had to be attentive to the trajectory of each one of them”, explained Rotondo.
At the Instituto Superior Estrada, the boys work in different “modules for learning”, spaces where they work as a team and for projects related to certain subjects and content -divided into basic content, which allows them to continue learning, and important content, which is applied in the projects-. The way to qualify the work is through four levels of achievement: in the first, students need help to achieve the objectives; in the second, they reach them thanks to the accompaniment of another; in the third, they can do it alone and, in the fourth, in addition to achieving the objectives alone, they help others to do so. According to Rotondo, this system allows teamwork to feed back into the learning process and that’s where the ratings come from.
Santa Teresa is in the south of the province of Santa Fe, 55 kilometers from Rosario, and about 3,200 people live there. “El Estrada” is the only high school in the area and its dropout levels worried the locals, until the work of Rotondo and his team began to bear fruit.: “At first, the number of boys who dropped out decreased, then the number who repeated and before the pandemic we had already managed to ensure that no boy repeated and that everyone finished”, assured the director.
While some 600,000 Argentine students across the country never returned to school after the pandemic, at the institute run by Rotondo they did not drop out, although they recognized that performance levels decreased as a result of the number of students who continue studying. “We must bear in mind that it is not the same that 40% remains as practically 100% remains. After the process of retention and care of educational trajectories, it is normal for there to be some casualties”, explained Rotondo.
Despite the positive numbers, the director does not believe that they are the best school, but he is sure that they have developed a transparent learning model, with a highly distributed leadership that allows them to focus on each one of the students, take care of their trajectories and be able to have acceptable academic growth.
“Our main objective is that all the children are in school, that they learn at their own pace and can be happy and enjoy the place and the moment in which they are.“, said.
Rotondo’s path was not easy. He was born in Máximo Paz, a neighboring town to Santa Teresa. His father was a mechanic and his mother was a seamstress. From them, he says, he observed and learned the self-teaching that guided him during his path as a teacher.
“After leaving school I spent 14 years dedicating myself to other things, mainly helping my father with mechanics, until I won some money in the pool and I bought a computer. There I began to use computers and in the 90s, when they hired people to give special classes, I started teaching. He taught computer science at the Máximo Paz primary school. So my fellow teachers insisted that I finish high school that I went to Santa Teresa to do it. There I finished high school and started teaching at the same school where I am now the director,” he said. Later, he was so interested in education that he continued studying and did a technical degree in business administration, management courses and pedagogical training.
His great inspiration was the Finnish educational model and the Jesuit schools of Barcelona, world niches of educational innovation. “I said: if it is possible to make changes elsewhere, why not here? Beyond what transformations they made, I was inspired to think that some things could be changed“, said.
For Rotondo, the keys to overcoming the great educational crisis that the country is going through, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic that forced classrooms to be closed for a long time, are several. First of all, he said: “We need to understand the importance, the relevance, that teachers have within the educational system. The teacher is essential in the learning process because he is the one who generates changes in the world”.
On the other hand, he assured that it is essential to know the Argentine educational system to understand how far one can go. “Getting to know each other and appreciating the extraordinary value of our teachers will allow us to get ahead of the problems we have in education. If we congenialize this and add the value of the family as the true responsible for schooling of the students we can achieve changes in Argentina”, he maintained.
roundabout He says that what gratifies him most about being a teacher is something that cannot be described very well in words, and yet he tries: “It has to do with having the possibility of doing something to change things, to improve, to give meaning to exist, to be, to be”. And he believes, above all, in the role of the teacher as someone “who builds bridges to the future.”