Today was a really interactive day for the Fellows and me. We spent the day visiting schools in the area, which is something we probably should have done when we first arrived. Seeing the students in their usual educational environment was infinitely more helpful than being told about it by others. Our first stop was the Rabindranath Tagore Institute (RTI), a prestigious secondary school in the Pamplemousses district. The campus was a sprawling complex of mustard-colored buildings and exotic flower bushes; it was a tropical version of Lady Margaret Hall, the college I lived in during a summer in Oxford. The staff and pupils were incredibly gracious and welcoming; you could tell they were well prepared to receive us. They even let us participate in their last-day-of-school disco! We fistpumped and sega-ed our way through a few songs (including “Champagne Showers,” our de facto summer theme song) before climbing back into the car to drive to our next destination.
The secondary school we arrived at was tucked away at the mouth of a narrow village road, invisible to passerby on the main streets. My first thought was that this campus looked just like RTI, but after a worldwide apocalypse. The paint was cracking, the lights dim. Curtains swung precariously through dull, open windows, and every door creaked in rusty objection when we entered. The complete lack of students, who had just been released for winter break, contributed to the eerie feel of the place. Unlike RTI, which has dozens of buildings, an auditorium, gyms, music rooms, labs, and any other facility useful for education, this school’s only furnishings were peeling desks and shattered chalkboards. This was a school for “average” students—those who had not achieved outstanding scores on their CPEs. I was shocked when Vedant told us that this was where many of our ELI Africa students studied.
After seeing RTI and a government school in the same day, I realized how different an experience students in Mauritius have. So much is based on where they receive a secondary education. While it’s true that there are “better” and “worse” schools even in developed countries like America, the differences between those Western institutions are nonexistent compared to the educational discrepancies here. Still, I could not help but think of New York during today’s tours. Education in my state is full of contradictions; it is home to some of the nation’s most respected schools, as well as some of the most resource-deprived ones. Which one you attended is partially based on merit, like Stuyvesant High School, but is mostly based on what area you can afford to live in. Unlike Mauritian education, whose value increases with ability to pay tuition fees, the quality of public education in New York often depends on whether or not you have the money to pay property taxes to live within the school’s zone. The result is that students attending inner city schools where taxes are cheap receive a comparatively sparse education compared to kids in the suburbs. And since level of education is positively correlated to salary in America, the cycle simply continues. Children living in poverty continue to struggle in underfunded schools, while the offspring of the relatively wealthy have a chance to better themselves through school. The problem that the folks at ELI Africa are trying to solve isn’t a Mauritian problem; it’s a worldwide epidemic of educational inequality.
I am completely at a loss for how we can stop this cycle and start equalizing quality of public education. And while I do not know if our experiential learning programs are enough to supplement the meager education that the ELI students tend to receive in public school, I do hope that we can at least inspire them to see the world outside a system that has already written them off.