We are home from an unforgettable experience. Argentina offers you winter in July. I arrived to both a chilly grey climate mostly in the 50s and a very warm response to my book in Spanish. Yet that is only part of the story.
This was my fifth trip to Argentina. Allow me a bit of background: In 1998, then BankBoston Community Foundation employees in Buenos Aires and Sao Paolo visited our school. Amidst the chaos of our first year, they fell in love with our kids, the energy, the teaching methods, the power of the arts integration in academic classes, and the idea of pilot schools. They asked me to visit Argentina. Ligia Noriega (now Head of Excel HS in South Boston) and Diane Fulman (from the Bank and now at Babson College) and I visited every sector from unions, to artists, to schools, to private sector firms interested in education reform. At every turn, Enrique Morad (then head of the Argentine foundation of BankBoston and now Executive Director of the Loma Negra Foundation, a large cement producer) asked: Can we do this (model BAA) in Argentina?
In 2000 Ligia and I, joined by Ramiro Gonzalez, returned to do a four-day workshop on BAA practices, and on multiple intelligences (Howard Gardner’s work). By then, BankBoston Argentina had selected six schools outside of the capital of Buenos Aires (BA) to participate in “Academia en las Artes” or later, “Arte en las Escuelas.”
Four years later, Ramiro and I returned to visit each of the school sites in regions as far away as Chaco (bordering Paraguay) and as close as the Province of Buenos Aires. They ran the gamut from technical schools, to the only secondary school in a small rural town, to a provincial capital school with many special needs students. Each school, with its own context and constraints in a highly regulated system, had incorporated arts into the curriculum. We were highly impressed. So were the funders. More schools were added to the project.
I returned again in 2005, this time with Cara Livermore (BAA Spanish teacher now doing her principal training in California with George Simpson, formerly music head at BAA and now principal of Los Angeles County High School for the Arts), for the presentation of the book “Aprender Desde el Arte” written by Natalia Catalano Dupuy and Costanza Ortiz. They chronicled the first seven years of the project and inclusion of now 16 schools.
This past March brought an amazing call. Not only would they like to translate my book, but Enrique and Natalia wanted me to return and help inaugurate “Arte en las Escuelas” in BA. For reasons both political and sensible, the project had stayed away from the country’s major city. But now, a very forward-looking Minister of Education, Esteban Bullrich, was very close to the Mayor, and everyone wanted a success story for Argentina.
That’s the background. Here’s the trip. As always, my experience in Argentina means jam-packed days: lots of different meetings and improvisational encounters. I am still dreaming in Spanish. Argentina’s private sector has sustained this project for over 10 years with BAA as the inspiration. One cannot be a prophet in one’s own land and I certainly don’t feel like a prophet in Argentina, yet I am enormously proud of BAA’s foundational role.
My first day was at the Bank’s foundation headquarters with Ramiro. BankBoston has been bought and sold several times and is now known as StandardBank, a South African bank, and may be sold to a Brazilian bank. Natalia, now lead organizer and director of the project, brought all of the school heads together from the original group of 16. Some boarded buses at 3am to attend this workshop. Our workshop on leadership was very well received.
In addition, one of the Argentine members of the team presented the broad outline of the evaluation of the project – ten years of work. Privately funding a project for this long is unusual; in Argentina it is unthinkable. People are so excited about the project in part because of its longevity and the fact that real research can be done.
From our workshop we ran to lunch with Minister Bullrich and his team. Tall and very bright, he has no background in education, but he realizes an opportune time politically to make lasting changes in BA schools. The city is the size of Uruguay and Costa Rica with well over 1,000 schools. Argentina’s population is 36 million; 12 million in the city of Buenos Aires. If you do something well in that city, you have the chance to make an impact in the entire country. Ramiro and I were welcomed and fed a delicious lunch with a chance to discuss some of Bullrich’s intentions. This prepared us for the next day and a meeting with an Inter-American Development Bank representative to assess interest in funding some aspect of the project. I am hoping they will fund some of the evaluation.
Lunch that day came at the Museum of Decorative Arts of Quinquela Martín, a beautiful former home of the painter Benito Quinquela Martín known for his now iconic paintings of La Boca. This is the poor port area of BA that remains very touristy and where the tango was supposedly born. The museum director, María Sábato, uses musicians to guide the school children through the museum and to better understand the color, tone, value and composition of the paintings. She was very proud of this innovation. I was impressed, too, and hope we can incorporate something similar.
At the museum luncheon gathering for 50 potential business partners, Bullrich announced that 50 schools (not the 10 we expected) in BA would incorporate arts in education. Then he asked me to speak to the assembled crowd. Nervous of what I could say to this group, I tried to emphasize the importance of the partnership between public and private sector. We in the public sector just don’t have sufficient resources to do it alone.
Later that evening, after being on a local radio show about the project, we were back at the museum for a panel discussion. The evening was open to the public with probably 200 people in the audience. After a wonderful concerto of cello and violin, the panel of three discussed the importance of arts in the school and issues of school reform in general. I talked about my book and tried to connect our experiences to those in Argentina. Bullrich and the former minister, Mario Giannoni, talked about how skills in the arts are applicable to 21st Century skills. In other words, how the skills that the arts teach us are the very skills the business world says it wants. Lots of energy and excitement grew around the work that Bullrich and the private sector could do together.
The next day Natalia and I were off to Mendoza to meet with directors and supervisors from the Universidad de Congreso. This private university has done a great deal to educate the citizens of Mendoza, a beautiful mountainous wine country city. The Vice-Rector presented a resolution congratulating me on the project and on my book. I was named an external advisor to the university. All very nice, but the most impressive part of the day was Natalia’s discussion with university folks about initiating programs in Mendoza.
My final day in Argentina involved meeting with a large group of young professionals who have formed a think tank, Fundación Pensar. They hope to run the Mayor of BA as the next President. School reform is a large part of their platform. You can rest assured that I tried to be helpful!
In spite of frequent ups and downs in planes and a difficult departure because of a strike in the control towers, it was a wonderful trip. Each visit leaves me more impressed with the industry and passion of the people I meet. Everyone is determined to make things better, and very aware of how bad things have been. It is no easy feat in our country merging public and private sector or to make sustained changes in public education. Still I have enormous faith in our colleagues there. They are smart. They are willing to ask hard questions. And they are building a movement. I am proud to continue to play some small part. Mostly, I am enormously proud that this inspiration comes from BAA.
I thought you’d also like to read some of the press that our discussions and presentations generated. I know these articles are in spanish, but I thought you’d appreciate anyway!
“Seminario de la Academia de Artes de Boston” from Ciudad1
Bullrich: “buscamos potenciar el arte” from Telam
Followup on the Seminario de Artes en el Museo Quinquela from Esteban Bullrich