Withdrew from school

Each month a plastic box arrives on my desk, filled with checks made out to various schools where affiliated students attend. Attached to each check is a spreadsheet with the names and other information of all the affiliated students at that school. One of my tasks is to review the checks and documentation to make sure it all adds up, that policies are being followed, and we can authorize payment.

Education is not free in Guatemala, and secondary school is fairly expensive. School fees are our biggest program expense. At the secondary level, depending on the grade and school, monthly fees range from around $35 to almost $70 per month. Described in dollars that may not sound like much, but for perspective, the fees for just one kid in high school is roughly a third of a typical family’s income.

So each month I spend part of a day looking over a long lists of names and affiliation numbers, along with some other data, to double-check that all those payments are right. This month I noticed something I hadn’t before. One of the names had a zero in the fees column with the words “withdrew from school” next to it.

That happens, of course. We have about 2,700 affiliated students, so no matter what, you’re going to see some drop out. Each case is particular, but you get a large enough population and it becomes a statistical probability: X% will drop out in any given year.

I jotted down the name, thinking I might look into what happened. Maybe this kid’s story would tell us something that we could use to improve another kid’s chance of graduating. Then I came across another case, so I noted her information, too. Then another, and another. I found seven kids dropped out this month. That really got my attention. I don’t remember seeing that before. I stopped thinking about individual stories and started to wonder what was the trend. Why so many all at once?

On the way to a meeting, I asked a couple of colleagues that question, all of whom suggested possible factors, such as harvest time for some crops, having failed mid-year exams, other ideas, but none really knew for sure. I expect that as I follow up, someone here will know the particular facts of each case, but in the end they’ll all be different enough that the most you can really say about them in common is “poverty.”

Last week I wrote about a United Nations report on inequality in Guatemala. Within Latin America, only Bolivia ranks higher than Guatemala in the gap between the rich and the poor. The roots of inequality go back to colonial times, but the effects and the means by which its passed from one generation to the next were there in the line “withdrew from school.”

When we affiliate a family and pay their school fees, subsidize their health care, and provide them the opportunity to live in decent housing, in effect we immediately reduce inequality and temporarily boost them above the poverty line. But unless they gain the skills during the intervening years to qualify for stable employment, it’s only temporary.

One study, looking across developing countries, shows that graduating high school doubles earning potential. Another study found that a Guatemalan needs about 12 years of education to support a family of four above the poverty line. That all squares with our own experience: without a high school degree, it’s tough to get stable employment at a decent wage.

A couple of years ago we teamed up with the University of Wisconsin to measure the long-term impact of our programs, and they found that affiliated students graduated high school at better than twice the rate as those in the control group. That’s a huge impact, and we’re proud of those results.

But those are macro-level statistics. At the individual level, seven kids just dropped out of school, and by doing so, their chance of a better life began slipping away. And Guatemala became just a bit more unequal.

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