We arrived late to the graduation. The entire block was full and there wasn’t a free seat in sight. Hundreds of people filled the street. Some people came dressed from work, and others, who had loved ones graduating, were dressed in their best clothes, cameras ready. I had no idea it would be such an elegant event. Incongruously it was held in the street that the neighbors had shut down, with chairs lent from the recuperated factory hosting the event, neighbor’s homes, a retirement home across the street and wood benches constructed just for the event. The stage was a makeshift construction with a hand-held microphone from the 1980s. But the people, the people attending were so elegant. The women graduating looked like they were going to their proms or quince celebrations in elaborate dresses, hair and faces made up and high heeled shoes – although many were decades older than fifteen or prom age. The spirit, joy, and pride on their faces and those of their families and neighbors was palpable. It was contagious. The pride was for graduating high school: something many people in poor and low working-class neighborhoods in Argentina do not get to do. For me, the joy of course was sharing in their pride at graduating, but also in recognizing how ‘regular’ this sort of thing had become for the community. The graduation took place in the street in front of the recuperated print shop Chilavert where the students had completed their three years of study: a street that the workers and families had shut down because they needed to. It was all so normal – normal in the revolutionary sense that Che Guevara spoke of normal – remarking that when the extraordinary becomes everyday you know it is a revolutionary time.
The above described celebration took place in 2009, marking the first graduation of a Bachillerato Popular in Chilavert, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I was again in Chilavert, speaking with popular educators from the Bachillerato five years later. The evolution since that first graduating class is remarkable, both within Chilavert and throughout Argentina. Already impressive in 2009, after only three years with more than 40 popular education centers and over 5000 students, five years later, that number has more than doubled with over 100 bachilleratos and many thousands of students.
When one thinks of alternative high school programs certain images often come to mind, such as a wide diversity of participants based in age and experience. And when one thinks of popular education, one imagines learning and teaching based in local knowledge bases of the participants. The bachilleratos reflect these elements, and so much more. Ages of participants range from teens who were kicked out of high school often for alleged behavioral issues, to parents and grandparents, and all ages in between, including in one bachillerato on the outskirts of Buenos Aires where two of the students, in their later 70s, are the parents of one of the workers in the recuperated factory that houses that particular alternative high school diploma program. Most students come from poor, working poor and unemployed families, and most of the bachilleratos are located in these neighborhoods, ranging from those on the periphery of cities, in neighborhoods that resemble shanty towns, to ones such as Las Tunes, 40 kilometers outside Buenos Aires, which is self organized. Las Tunes is run by the community, using assemblies and is located on what was once a trash dump. The community has collectively built homes for the families in the town and many collective spaces, including a school and a bachillerato.
As for popular education, this is where the bachilleratos are most innovative, creating new ways of not only teaching and learning, but relating to the community. Ninety-nine percent of the students in each bachillerato come from that community, thus there is a real dedication by the neighbors and people in the area for the success of the students and project. Many neighbors support the process in various ways from attending public events the students organize to bringing food and helping to build and later clean the spaces for education.
Classes are organized with face-to-face meetings, influenced by or using direct democracy, striving for full participation and the breaking down of hierarchy. The size of the groups range from ten to thirty people, with each group choosing what they will study, how, where, and then what they will do at the end of the study process.
To say the students choose what course of study they will undertake is to say a great deal. When do students anywhere get to enter a classroom setting and decide the themes around which they will learn? In the bachilleratos they do. For example, in the bachillerato in Chilavert the education is organized around the ideas of coopertivism and its interpretation via recuperation – so more along the lines of self organization and horizontalism than traditional concepts of cooperatives. Not only do the students have an underlying course of study of self organization in Chilavert, but since its inception in 2007, the bachilleratos now include classes taught by a few of the workers.
Not only does the bachillerato in Chilavert decide how and what to study collectively and democratically they also collectively deal with whatever tensions or problems arise in the classroom. This is based in the agreement that no student will be expelled from the bachillerato. It is a bit tricky since there are agreements that have to be met so that a person can graduate. So, what happens then if a person does not comply with an agreement? Rather than punishing that student, they organize an assembly of all students and teachers and also include a few of the workers from Chilavert. They discuss the issue collectively and decide what can be done so as to remedy the problem. Generally this has only been reflected in small issues such as missing too many classes or a lack of participation. There is a mechanism however for a more serious transgression, which did occur once, and in that case the student was asked to leave for a short period of time, reflect on what happened and then write and present something based on their reflections to the entire group – students, teachers and workers. It was successful. It is very much reminiscent of the circle justice forms used by some First Nations in Canada
Each graduating class of a bachillerato has to create a collective project. These are quite wide ranging depending on the location and thematic of the course of the education. In Chilavert, each year, the students have created various publications and over time also community radio programs. The first graduating class created notebooks that they printed together on the machines of the workplace, having learned the basics of printing from the workers. The notebooks are for sale to the community to offset the cost of printing and then free for the next entering bachillerato class. Inside the notebooks, on the margins of every page are quotations from the students reflecting their thoughts and feelings regarding education. They see this as sharing and passing down some of their knowledge about education. For example, a few read,
“Education is not a business – Education makes us free.”
“We dedicate ourselves every day to fight for an education that includes everyone.”
“Opening schools and fighting for popular and public education.”
Since the first graduating class the projects in Chilavert have become increasingly sophisticated, in content and in form, including not only notebooks, but calendars, note cards and pamphlets. And the students who graduate have increasingly continued to help the incoming classes, with tow graduates even becoming teachers and now participating in the Bachillerato Popular in IMPA, another recuperated workplace and community center in Buenos Aires.
This is just one example of the now over 100 Bachilleratos Populares in Argentina. There are, as with all of the movements in Argentina, differences and tensions in how to self organize, and in particular in relationship to the state. The government recognizes the bachilleratos and the degrees that the students receive, though whether a bachillerato receives subsidies for the teachers is another question and one based in how that particular high school diploma course is organized. For example, the state demands that there is a formal hierarchy of roles with the teachers and a specific form of division of money – something that I have heard is not evenly complied with in reality but is on paper. There are other similar such requirements that have resulted in some bachilleratos not taking money from the state while others use it as a way to help a movement or community survive, dividing the money the teachers receive more evenly among the teachers and in the community. It is yet another way the government has managed to appear as if it is playing a totally supportive role, yet underneath there are divisions in the movements emerging based on this support.
Participants in the movement reflect that the self organized nature of the schools is directly connected to the horizontal and assembly based movements that came out of the popular rebellion of December 19 and 20, 2001. Recuperated workplaces, neighborhood assemblies, unemployed movements, occupations of land and self organized art and media groups emerged in massive numbers throughout the country after 2001. The Bachilleratos Populares are a sort of hijo (child) of this form of organization and continue the in the same form and spirit as those out of the rebellion of the 19/20th.