Last Thursday morning, principal Joanne Jackson and her staff were waiting in the lobby, as they always are, to greet the students of Bucknell Elementary as they came streaming through the front doors. With them was Olga de Las Heras, who, as Uruguay’s Superintendent of Education in Charge of Elementary Instruction is responsible for the education of the 440,000 elementary school students in her country.
When Bucknell’s administrators heard they would be hosting de Las Heras, who visited the area for three weeks as part of a Fulbright Scholars exchange, they made sure she would be present for their daily morning ritual, said assistant principal Raquel Alcaraz. The greeting, she said, instills “a positive attitude. And [the students] do know that each one of us cares for them.”
De Las Heras is in the process of implementing a national system of assessment, and the main purpose of her visit was to learn about assessment tools developed by area school systems. But, speaking in Spanish translated by Alcaraz, de Las Haras said the interactions she witnessed between teachers and students reminded her that despite differences in resources (she said Uruguay’s system for national assessments will not be computerized) there are some things all education systems have in common.
“All kids have the same needs, no matter which country they live in,” she said. In Uruguay, “teachers are professionals. So we are working with very good human resources.”
BETWEEN the greeting at 7:30 and eating lunch with teachers at 11, de Las Haras saw lessons on history, language arts, math, physical education, reading recovery, English as a second language and art. She watched one teacher do a “running record” with a student, filling in a progress worksheet as the student read to her. This is the type of assessment tool de Las Heras may bring back to Uruguay to strengthen her country’s system for collecting data to make informed policy decisions. In all, de Las Haras observed five classes at length and had four shorter discussions with teachers about specific techniques.
During her three week visit, De Las Haras and 33 other Uruguayan educators met with many experts and officials, including Virginia’s state superintendent of schools. She visited Bucknell because the school has strong programs for teaching English to non-native speakers.
Of Bucknell’s students, 54 percent are Hispanic, 20 percent are black and 8 percent are Asian. Almost one-third of its students are not proficient in English but Bucknell does not isolate them in special classes. Language specialists work with students during regular classes, a format that has the benefit of exposing their classmates to other languages.
Urguay has a literacy rate of close to 100 percent, and de Las Haras said it aspires to incorporate the teaching of English as a second language into the national curriculum.
AT THE END of her busy morning, De Las Haras said she had accomplished her mission of learning more about how the school was organized and how it implemented programs that support students. Asked whether she observed differing teaching styles in America and Uruguay, she replied “si et no.”
The differences, she explained, are mainly in resources, not skills. When de Las Haras’ host in America, Ruth Aponte, visited Uruguay this summer as part of the same Fulbright program, she was struck by how teachers used lessons that incorporated science and math into realistic situations. There was no “memorization” or “regurgitation.” Teachers asked complex problems about buying, selling and manufacturing. “It’s holistic, which is the real world.”
Aponte is a central administrator for D.C. Public Schools. She has been to Uruguay several times with the Fulbright program, which was founded for similar exchanges of ideas all over the world. In Uruguay, she said, “everybody knows you are a teacher because you wear, it looks like what the doctors wear, a white robe.” On her visit this summer, she asked to wear one too. She recalled visiting a school and walking through the poor neighborhood that surrounded it. “We just walked around. And it’s amazing that people would come out with the respect and the dignity. It was amazing.”
Alcaraz said Bucknell’s educators invited de Las Haras to their morning greeting to demonstrate how they show their students the same respect and dignity. “Our staff is committed to education. Our staff is committed to our students. That’s the message that we have delivered today.”