Jesus Reynoso talks to his 3rd grade students at Guillermo González Camarena, primary school in the eastern part of Tijuana on Sept. 13, 2022.
Jesus Reynoso talks to his 3rd grade students at Guillermo González Camarena, primary school in the eastern part of Tijuana on Sept. 13, 2022. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

For two years, Guillermo González Camarena Elementary School in eastern Tijuana stood silent and empty, shuttered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Vandals climbed over the fence, shattered locks, ripped out lights and bathroom fixtures, stole electric cables and sprayed walls with paint.

Across Baja California, students are racing to make up for time lost to the pandemic. At 11 other school campuses across Tijuana, the buildings were too damaged to re-open when students returned last month. But these students were luckier: Their campus has been rebuilt, the perimeter secured, the walls cleaned, the bathrooms redone, the locks fixed, the electrical wiring replaced, and new lights installed. To safeguard the school, parents have started chipping in for a security guard.

A 1st grade student sits in front of a wall that once had graffiti on it but has been painted over at Guillermo González Camarena, primary school in the eastern part of Tijuana on Sept. 13, 2022. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

And next month, for the first time, they’re getting computers —100 of them — courtesy of a small Tijuana foundation that wants children at all economic levels to be digitally literate. 

This school campus in the Cañadas del Florido neighborhood was a hive of hope and activity when I visited one afternoon last week. In the classrooms, uniformed students leaned over classwork, and groups of parents came to meet with teachers. 

As principal Hortensia Ruiz Ramírez stepped through the campus at recess, she passed little girls with big bows in their hair strolled hand-in-hand, while boys climbed the jungle gym and kicked a soccer ball.

“There’s a lot of coming and going, there’s not a steady population,” she told me – explaining that their families tend to be highly mobile and they move for work and housing. That makes it challenging for educators to build a strong school community and follow students’ progress.

Struggling to Catch Up

Across Tijuana, more than 302,000 public school students in kindergarten through ninth grade returned to school on Aug. 29. Though in-person classes resumed last spring at most schools, many are still lagging behind as they launch a new academic year.

Earlier this month, the state’ education secretary acknowledged the need for extra help as he announced the creation of “educational innovation centers” in Tijuana, Mexicali and Ensenada equipped with 1,000 computers and assigning teachers to work with students who need help with basic skills such as math and reading. 

Miguel Alfredo Nuño García, who oversees public elementary and secondary education for the state in Tijuana, said the pandemic offered challenges – but also opportunities for growth. 

“We made a great leap, in that all teachers now know how to work the technology, (for remote learning), something we didn’t have before,” he said. “And we also developed new ways of learning.”

But especially in low-income areas of the city, many students had no computers at home, and during the pandemic were unable to connect to online classes offered by the public school system. Now they are struggling to catch up.

Before and after photos of the newly renovated girls bathroom after being vandalized at Guillermo González Camarena, primary school in the eastern part of Tijuana on Sept. 13, 2022. / Right side photo by Ariana Drehsler

In Sorabet Jiménez’s first-grade classroom, paintings of planets grace the ceiling, but the students last week were focused instead on the task before them: coloring in various shapes — triangles, circles, rectangles — an exercise to prepare them to shape letters.

Of her 24 students, only four with access to kindergarten instruction had started to read and write. The rest and “have a lot of difficulty,” she said. “They struggle to write letters, for two years they didn’t work.”

In Jesús Reynoso’s third-grade classroom, 26 students leaned over a math exercise.  Many of their parents work in maquiladoras, or as vendors in the city’s large informal economy, the teacher said. The students got little help.

“Anything they learned at home was very basic,” he said. “It was urgent that they return to school, to have direct contact with teachers and classmates.”

Guillermo González Camarena, a 420-school whose students attend classes in the afternoon, has come back to life like many others with support from government, parents and teachers. 

But it’s also getting a powerful boost through Tú Más Yo, a small Tijuana foundation focused on educational initiatives that stepped in with funds to rebuild the bathrooms, install ceiling fans, and raise outdoor lights to improve security. The foundation is pledging continued support for improvements such as awnings to create shade in the courtyard, purchasing a trash container and building more gym equipment.

But Tú Más Yo’s ultimate goal is not to rebuild schools–but rather  to encourage computer literacy. The aim here is to build a program here that can be replicated at other schools in the region. Already, University of California San Diego and the Institute of the Americas in La Jolla have shared their teaching platforms, and students from Tijuana’s private university, Cetys, are preparing to act as instructors in the online classes scheduled to start in the coming weeks. 

“We’re opening a door to a new world that they don’t know, and that they weren’t going to know unless they have a computer, internet access and basic skills,” Antonio Díaz, president of Tú Más Yo Foundation;  he’s also a housing developer in Tijuana with an MBA from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. “You open a new window for them to actually explore.”

The foundation’s computer classes will start with students in the higher grades, fifth and sixth. “We need to move into virtual education, because that’s the future,” Díaz said. “To give opportunity to the kids that don’t have the resources but have the ability to go to the next step.”

Students play soccer at Guillermo González Camarena, a primary school in Tijuana on Sept.13, 2022. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

In Other News

  • Invisible crime: A new report has found that extortion is an under-reported crime in Tijuana and those most affected are often small neighborhood businesses with little ability to fight back or move away. The report, titled “Business Extortion in Tijuana: Who Pays and Who Benefits?” was presented at the University of California San Diego by Romain Le Cour, program director for security and violence reduction at Mexico Evalua, a Mexico City-based nonprofit that evaluates public policies. Because the crimes are rarely reported, authorities have little incentive to address the issue, Le Cour said. “It doesn’t cost politically not to take care of it.” Yet Le Cour suggested that a percentage of visible crimes such as thefts, physical violence, arson, homicides could be the “consequence of an extortion-protection racket relationship that went bad.”
  • Calls for justice: In a city dulled to homicide headlines, this one struck a nerve. A 14-year-old boy was found dead this month four days after he disappeared from a bridge spanning the concrete Tijuana River channel. Kevin Yael Gonzalez Garcia, who was helping his mother sell gelatin desserts, had been on a video call with a friend as he walked home at about 11 a.m. on Sept. 2. The friend told authorities that heard a man’s voice say “Why are you filming us?” followed by Kevin’s denial before the phone suddenly went dead. The teen’s corpse was found four days later in a storm drain in the river channel; the medical examiner’s office determined that he had been repeatedly beaten. Drug sales and use for years have been rampant in the channel. Angry residents are asking why there were no patrols by this bridge so often crossed by students, and why authorities did not take quicker action to search for him. La Jornada, AFN, Zeta, Punto Norte.
  • Sky train: As traffic gridlock grows in the Tijuana region, Baja California Gov. Marina del Pilar Avila’s administration has given the green light to a private proposal to build an elevated rail connecting Rosarito Beach with the San Ysidro Port of Entry. The project, called Sky Tren Baja, and proposed by Jeca Railway Corporation, would be developed with private funds. At a presentation earlier this month, an executive said the initial phase would be inaugurated in two years, with full buildout in 2025. But Tijuana Mayor Montserrat Caballero said she’s waiting to see final plans before approving any land use permits necessary for the project to move forward.
  • Children’s health care champion dies: Elizabath “Betty” Jones, a pediatric nutritionist specialist who co-founded Hospital Infantil de las Californias in Tijuana, passed away last month at the age of 88. The only such nonprofit pediatric healthcare center in northwest Mexico, it is sustained largely by private donations and numerous volunteers, and treats children regardless of their ability to pay. Born in Alberta, Canada, Jones was a longtime Coronado resident with a doctorate from the University of San Diego. She and Tijuana pediatric surgeon Dr. Gabriel Chong King founded the facility in 1994, benefiting tens of thousands of children in the region each year. “To go into a foreign country and to be able to do what I have done is truly a privilege,” she once said. Jones’ memory will be honored on Oct. 22 in San Diego during a fundraising event for Hospital Infantil.

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