The director is the heart and engine of the educational institution. In vulnerable communities, they assume a key role as both a pedagogical and community leader, organizing and mobilizing the educational community for its development. The crisis of COVID19 has not changed this role, and school principals have given all of them to move the community forward.
Experiences such as the generation of Volunteer Brigades for the care and maintenance of schools, the implementation of classes through community radio stations, the organization of “ollas populares” (a type of soup kitchen organized by members of the communities) for the most affected families, and the most creative ways found to reach the students, are some of the innovations mentioned by the directors interviewed in this new article in the series #LessonsLearned from the Alda Socio-educational Observatory.
Fundamental part of the educational system.
Public school principals are a key part of the educational system. Their leadership is an essential factor in improving learning outcomes and change processes in schools (Benegas, 2016), which becomes even more important in times of crisis such as the present one.
The suspension of on-site classes and the rapid implementation of the virtual class format at country level has shaken schools and families, with a greater impact on those vulnerable communities where conditions for distance education are not given, and which are, in turn, the communities where the economic crisis has hit the hardest. In this context of great limitations and challenges, management leadership has been able to make a difference with innovative and resilient responses, according to the needs.
“Educational institutions need managerial leadership. That is, a leadership that acts as a dynamizing element, capable of directing and influencing the behavior and practices of the entire educational community, both pedagogically and socially. A leadership that gives meaning to educational actions and mobilizes the members of the school community towards the achievement of common objectives and that focuses on learning, on the achievement of academic improvements and also on the transformation of the school” (Leithwood and Jantzi, quoted in Benegas, 2016:11).
However, despite this fundamental importance, the management sector of schools is still one of the most relegated in terms of public policies of accompaniment and training. A research carried out by Fundación Alda has shown that only 14% of plans and programs focused on improving educational quality in the country is destined to this sector. (Galeano, Valdez and Paredes, 2019).
Leadership and Mobilization facing the crisis
As early as 2014, OREALC/UNESCO claimed that “the challenge lies in trying to give new answers to the questions that arise in an increasingly globalised society in which change could be presented as an opportunity for improvement” (OREALC/UNESCO, 2014:37). This quote becomes of great relevance currently.
“At the beginning of the quarantine, everyone in the educational community was living in fear, practically isolated,” said the Héctor Roque Duarte school’s director, Lida Ayala. “The most difficult task of all has been the educational one, to fulfill my role as a leader, as a teacher who accompanies, advises, and directs the tasks”, mentioned the director Raquel Rolón, commenting on this period of more than 3 months of suspension of classes.
Accompaniment from the Ministry of Education and Science has been limited, with only a few schools receiving support from the area’s supervisors, while the others managed to overcome difficulties with the main focus on community teamwork. “The task I spent most of the time was to find mechanisms for my teachers, students and parents to adapt to this new way of teaching. None of them accepted it as they put up several obstacles, which together we have overcome little by little,” says Carlos López, director of the Pabla Ferreira School.
Daily calls to mothers and fathers, visits to families that do not have internet connectivity or whose children did not send homework, and organization of work teams have been some of the mechanisms implemented by principals. The initial rejection by some families, students, and teachers to the change in format of virtual classes was transformed, based on the daily, persistent, and motivating work of principals, into collaborative teamwork that faces difficulties.
Communities in need
“Virtual classes would be a good way to deal with situations like the pandemic, if all educational actors had the preparation and tools to do so,” says director López. However, that is not the reality for families in vulnerable communities, where not all of them have access to Internet, smart phones or credit for mobile data. Almost all of the virtual classroom work is done through cell phones, mainly the mother’s or father’s. This leads to a family having one cell phone for all children – on average, 3 to 4 children in school in different grades and shifts per family. If the parent works outside home, the situation becomes even more complicated, limiting work time to the evening after the parent returns from work.
All of this “makes the educational task to be developed within the aristocratic environment,” mentions director Raquel, commenting, like the other colleagues, that the return of the number of students returning tasks is quite low. However, they all assure that maintaining the bond with the students, regardless of the return of homework, has been the most important element in this period, both for the pedagogical process and also for psychosocial support.
The schools are located in communities that have been greatly affected by the crisis, with families mostly from urban settlements, who are engaged in activities such as recycling, food sales, domestic workers, and bricklayers, among others, who have not been working during this period. This situation affects, according to the principals, 80% of the families in the schools. In response to this, one of the schools has organized am “olla popular” for the families, while another school has joined in supporting the activity organized by the community. The schools systematically provide families with nutritional supplements for children
“Families today are willing and open, they are helping a lot and their work is fundamental at this time,” commented one director. Mothers and fathers have become the cornerstone of distance education. After the first moment of rejection, they are now working mostly in collaboration with the directors and teachers, accompanying their children, despite the limitations and difficulties. Some parents did not finish the first cycle of Basic School Education, which became a barrier to understanding the tasks, but not a limit to accompaniment and motivation.
Taking into account this context, principals are flexible with due dates, understanding that they cannot demand that children comply with the assigned tasks when they do not have the essential means nor the basic conditions for the learning proess. The one-to-one contact with the students allows for a follow-up and individualized delivery of the tasks to those children with curricular adaptations.
The main tool used is WhatsApp. Principals created WhatsApp groups with students by grade and by shift, as well as with families, for direct and personal contact. Access to the Ministry’s platform is difficult for families because they do not have the means, thus sending materials and tasks, as well as receiving the students’ work, is done through WhatsApp groups.
For those families who do not own cell phones or credit for mobile data to receive the materials sent in those groups, some schools have implemented the door-to-door delivery of photocopied materials.
The use of the community radio is one of the successful experiences to be replicated. The Pabla Ferreira School has taken the initiative, and every day it gives classes of about one to one and a half hours for each grade on the area’s community radio, with a high level of response from the community. Principal López says that the radio classes have been the only way to maintain the bond with all the students, while the MEC platform and the classes on cable television limit contact with those who have the means, and thus reduce follow-up and educational results.
Another innovative solution has been the creation of Volunteer Work Brigades at the Juan de Salazar School. The initiative came from Principal Raquel Rolón and the teachers after the school was burglared in the first weeks of quarantine. Currently, the Brigades, made up of teachers, work in daily shifts at the school, in a staggered manner, maintaining the care, cleanliness, tidiness and security of the premises, with positive results for both the school and the strengthening of the educational community.
Directors maintain that the process of working with virtual tools has generated a learning that, with the right means and conditions, can be very useful to add and enhance on-site classes, once they return to the classroom. Likewise, they have reaffirmed the leading role of the organized and mobilized educational community for the outcome of the learning processes. And they have highlighted how, based on meticulous work with information and data from the community, it is possible to adapt the contents and formats to the needs of the community, in order to move forward.
“We’ve learned that teachers are irreplaceable, that the daily contact is fundamental, that families are key in the learning process and that with appropriate conditions, technological tools allow us to improve education” they claim.
– Managerial leadership is key to school and community development. It is necessary to strengthen its accompaniment and training.
– The joint work, direct contact and participation of families, teachers and students allows us to achieve the desired results.
– Implementing technological tools for education and participation fosters – in appropriate conditions – positive results.
– Diversifying the strategies to reach families and students according to the reality of each one.
– The strategic importance of having updated data of the school population.
– The need to be flexible in response to the realities in order to adapt them to the context.
• Benegas, Myriam (2016). Características de una Directora Lídera. Estudio del Perfil Directivo en la Escuela Básica N° 5633 Santa Rosa de Limpio, Alda Socio-educational Observatory: Asunción.
• Galeno, María José; Valdez, Nolberto; Paredes, Teresa (2019). Mapeo de ofertas y actores intervinientes en el nivel primario a nivel nacional, Fundación Alda: Asunción (unpublished edition),
• OREALC/UNESCO (2014). School Leadership in Latin America and the Caribbean: The State of the Art on the Basis of Eight School Systems of the Region. Regional Bureau for Education in Latin America and the Caribbean: Santiago de Chile.
1Data sheet: Interview to two female principals and two male principals from the Network of Schools of city of Limpio, with whom Fundación Alda coordinates and collaborates within the framework of the Limpio Sur Program.