At Manuel Barros Borgoño Boys High hundreds of chairs form a barricade around the perimeter of the school. Students guard the entrance. Inside, the teachers have gone. The boys have left their uniforms at home and invited girls from a neighbouring school to join them in their make-shift camp. They hang out in groups, play table tennis, jam on instruments, skateboard. . .
If you think this sounds like every high school students dream, then you’re wrong. These kids aren’t rejecting school, they are demanding it. “Education is our right,” said one student.
The school is one of hundreds of schools and universities across the country that are en toma.Walking through the streets of the capital you pass them every few blocks; banners draped from their entrances, fences bristling with chair legs, music blaring into the street, and out the front, kids dressed up, dancing, hanging out or rattling donation cups.
They are part of a student movement that has thrown the education system into chaos and threatens to cancel the academic year of 2011 completely.
It’s a risk that students are willing to take. “We aren’t afraid of losing the year,” said one, “it’s for a cause.”
But though these kids might lose their official academic year, they are keen to continue their education. At Manuel Barros Borgoño students have organized their own classes, taught by volunteer university students.
Sergio Vicencio – who is doing a thesis at the University of Chile’s faculty of medicine – has been teaching a class in biology for 4 weeks now.
Sergio has taught at schools before, but says that his current class is much easier. “They are here because they want to be,” he said, “so they participate a lot more, they are a lot more open.”
Another University of Chile student, Rodrigo Avaria, is teaching Maths class. Though normally not a favourite amongst students, Rodrigo’s pupils are fully engaged in class, answering questions and collaborating on problems.
Both Sergio and Rodrigo were invited to teach by some of the most committed students at Manuel Barros Borgoño, who have formed a leadership group. They always keep a presence on campus, sleeping in classrooms – with beds pushed together to stay warm – and eating meals together.
I spoke with Marcelo and Alexis, two of the main organizers of the group. Marcelo had a toothbrush and razor protruding from his pocket, a mug in his hand and a folder under his arm. They told me that they were going to stick with the toma until they have achieved their demands.
“No one knows how long this will go on for, but from what I’ve heard it could be for the rest of the year,” said Sergio.
It’s a scenario that he and Rodrigo are willing to commit to. “I took this as a job, its part of my schedule now. I’m going to stay for as long as its necessary,” said Sergio. “It wouldn’t be fair to leave these kids without a teacher.”
“What worries me is to loose the year for nothing,” said Rodrigo, “but to loose the academic year now and to win (the right to free and quality education), that is much more important.”