Exclusion in the Dominican Education System: The Impact of Legal Reforms on Access

Kellogg/Kroc Undergraduate Research Grants

On Wednesday, June 13…

I have been traveling throughout my province and the neighboring provinces to meet up with Peace Corps volunteers and their contacts at schools, which has allowed me to see a lot of the region. It is really hard to complain about bus rides when you are driving through mountains or along the Caribbean coast. I am up to twenty-five interviews with teachers, taking me almost to my goal of thirty. This past week I also got the chance to speak with two students who had experienced difficulties in school due to their lack of documentation. I learned so much from these conversations and they have really helped to put my interviews with teachers in context. I am planning to focus on gathering more student interviews for the remainder of my time here. I have also had the chance to speak with officials at four different education district offices in the region. Not only were they able to give me a higher-level perspective of the policies regarding documentation but they also gave me some really interesting statistics that I am excited to include in my capstone. Overall, people have been extremely willing to speak with me and help me, which has pleasantly surprised me and allowed me to collect a really wide range of information. This week I am heading down to the south of the country to speak with a Peace Corps volunteer who has experienced high levels of discrimination towards Haitian students in her school. I am really looked forward to seeing a new region of the country and getting to hear her perspective. 

My biggest challenge right now is sifting through the information that I have and determining what I will be able to use in my thesis. All of the statistics that I have gotten from district offices show a decrease in dropout rates over recent years, contrary to what I had seen in World Bank and UNESCO data. This finding has made my research question, - “Why have dropouts increased over recent years?” - not really accurate. I have been working with my advisors in country and am planning to talk to my advisor, Professor Jaimie Bleck to determine how I want to reframe the results that I am finding. It will definitely be a challenge but I am really looking forward to getting to sit down and analyze the data that I have been finding. 

When I am not working, I have been spending a lot of time with my host family, watching a lot of baseball games (if anyone could convince me that baseball could be fun it is Dominicans), exploring the rivers around town, and eating far more of my host mom’s pica pollo(fried chicken) than any one person should in a summer. This summer has been great in almost all aspects except for what it has likely done to my cholesterol. I am so glad I decided to come back to the same town and have really loved getting to know the area and the region better. 

Summer 2018

In the fall of 2017, after I returned from spending two months in a small town in the Dominican Republic (DR), I wrote a reflection on the intensity and volume of my time in the DR. I wrote about the ways that the blaring bachataand merenguemusic, the friendliness of my community, and the constant noise and conversations of my neighbors gave me an appreciation for and a loud introduction to Dominican culture that was impossible to ignore. This summer, my second summer in the DR, was no quieter, and if anything, the realizations I had and experiences that I was afforded spoke to me in even deeper, more profound ways. Throughout my eight weeks in the DR I conducted a research project on access to education for undocumented students along the Dominican-Haitian border. I traveled throughout the DR to conduct over fifty interviews with teachers, education district officials, undocumented students, and Dominican-Haitian rights advocates. The opportunity to develop and execute a research project that truly excited me was unlike anything I had experienced in my undergraduate career. The two months that I spent executing this project allowed me to contribute to the limited body of knowledge on an issue that I am passionate about, enhance my understanding of a culture that I have grown to love, and strengthen relationships with the people who have become my Dominican family. Through the following report, I will discuss my research journey, what I plan to do with my findings, and the challenges and accomplishments that I encountered throughout my experience.

As a political science major and international development studies minor, I am particularly interested in education and its fundamental role in development. Last summer, I was exposed to the complexities and challenges of migration and documentation along the Dominican-Haitian border within the context of the healthcare system. After seeing the challenges for undocumented individuals in hospitals and clinics through my internship last summer, I was inspired to explore the barriers for undocumented individuals, particularly Dominicans of Haitian descent, in the education system. Despite multiple domestic and international laws that affirm the universal right to education in the DR, regardless of documentation status, reports of exclusion and disproportionate barriers for undocumented students continue. As I began my fieldwork, I hoped to explore the question of whether rising secondary school dropout rates (according to UNESCO and World Bank statistics), had been connected to the decreasing access to birth certificates and other forms of documentation during the same period. However, during my first few weeks of research, I was able to access district specific dropout rate statistics in seven of the education districts that I was studying. Each of these districts’ statistics demonstrated a decrease in dropout rates, challenging my research question, which was founded in the assumption that dropout rates had been increasing. Given this finding, I was forced to shift my research question slightly. With the help of my in country advisors, I decided to focus more specifically on examining knowledge of individuals at different levels of the education system with regards to policies for undocumented students.

In order to analyze the availability of information and communication of this information, I interviewed thirty-two teachers and school directors, seven officials in five different education district offices, nine students or families that had had challenges obtaining identity documentation, and three officials at the national Ministry of Education. When interviewing teachers and school directors, I posed vignette style questions, giving the scenario of the registration of an undocumented student. Through these questions, I hoped to get a sense of the practical responses of teachers, and whether or not these responses changed based on their level of policy understanding. To better understand interviews in the broader context of Dominican documentation policies, I spoke with individuals at NGOs and human rights observatories focused on Dominican-Haitian rights. I also interviewed Peace Corps volunteers who had had extensive experience working with this subgroup of the population. Finally, I wanted to understand the structural factors within the Dominican education system that could facilitate intentional or unintentional exclusion of undocumented students. To do this, I spent a lot of time speaking with teachers and other officials within the education system, as well as community members and education advocates. The Dominican education system is consistently ranked among the poorest in the world, meaning that access for undocumented students is often a focus that falls through one of the many gaps in the system. 

At the conclusion of my fieldwork, I had collected over fifty interviews that will allow me to analyze knowledge regarding protocols for undocumented students at each level of the Dominican education system. As I expected, and as earlier reports had found, there were significant challenges for undocumented students to stay in school. However, I was shocked by the extent and range of misinformation regarding policies for undocumented students. Teachers within the same education districts and even within the same schools demonstrated very different understandings of how long undocumented students could study for and how they should be registered. I also found that even teachers who knew that undocumented students could register would tell them that they could not register without their birth certificate as a way of pressuring them to get their documents. This strategy could unintentionally contribute to dropouts of undocumented students, and was something I had not initially considered as I began my fieldwork. As I begin to write my thesis, I am looking forward to analyzing these results in the context of political theories of policy feedback and street level bureaucracy. 

I have already given a summary of my preliminary results to four education districts, the civil registry office in a municipality in a border region, Peace Corps volunteers, and individuals responsible for information systems and documentation programming in the Ministry of Education. I have also scheduled a call with individuals from the U.S. Department of Labor who are interested in my results given its connection to access to education, and by extension, child labor. I spoke with them prior to beginning my fieldwork and hope that my results will be able to contribute to their annual report on progress to combat child labor in the DR. Finally, I plan to continue to work with lawyers at UNHCR in the DR to use my results to advocate for improved treatment of undocumented populations in the DR. I hope that my findings will contribute to the limited body of knowledge concerning the realities of access to education for undocumented students in the most marginalized, rural areas of the DR. 

In addition to advocacy, I plan to use my results to write my capstone report for the international development studies minor and as a case study for my political science honors thesis. I will submit my thesis to the Human Development Conference, the Midwest Political Science Conference, the Notre Dame Journal of Undergraduate Research, the Canadian Journal of Undergraduate Research, and the Journal of Educational Administration. Upon my graduation in May, I am considering pursuing scholarships and grants to continue this research. 

As a whole, I am proud of what I accomplished through my fieldwork. I was able to gather more interviews than I expected and speak with a lot of key informants that I could not have imagined that I would have been able to gain access to. It was incredibly exciting to hear experts on this issue interested in what I was finding and more importantly, interested in exploring solutions to the issues that I was seeing. Naturally, I faced a range of challenges throughout the summer that seem to be common to the fieldwork experience. In particular, I struggled to be sure that my interview participants were telling me the truth, and not just what I wanted to hear. On a more personal, broader level, I struggled with the depth and extent of the structural factors that permit the exclusion of undocumented children from Dominican schools. Although the majority of the teachers and school directors that I spoke with seemed to have truly good intentions to ensure access, they faced so many structural barriers in their efforts to ensure this inclusion, such as overcrowding and underfunding. I was also frustrated by how intractable a lot of the structural factors seemed to be. Multiple individuals that I interviewed explained to me that the Dominican education system has little to no consequences for officials who do not comply with directives from the Ministry. Thus, even if the government provides all of the correct information regarding rights to education for undocumented students, and provides schools with the resources they need to support them, there still remains a very easy pathway for those who wish to exclude to do so. These types of issues have deep roots and will not be resolved by merely providing more information to teachers. Although I still believe that creating awareness is essential, at multiple points throughout my fieldwork I was deeply challenged by the enormity of the factors that create a system that enables the exclusion of children based on their possession of a birth certificate, or lack thereof. 

My experience this summer generated more questions than answers, and I feel that that is exactly what I would have hoped for. I am confident that my work on these issues is only beginning, and I am looking forward to sharing the answers that I found through my work and continuing to try to answer the questions that challenged me this summer.  

Adviser: Jaimie Bleck