A school for two girls and one hope

The San Jorge de Luiña Public School, in the mining area, now paralyzed, of Tormaleo, in Ibias, is the living image of the council. The center, a perfectly equipped school that once housed dozens of children, has been emptied since the mine closed, leaving only two preschoolers: Lucia Mendez and Rokia Tambedu, a little girl of Gambian origin. The Mendez families from the town of Torga in Ibían and Tambedu (Ebrima, who has been working as a farmer since they came to the council in 2020, and Isatu, who acts as an attendant on the bus that takes her daughter to school and other students in San Antolín) sigh relieved to learn of the Ministry of Education’s decision to keep the school open despite the fact that with the course already underway, the school suffered three casualties. “Things well done should be recognized, I’m glad they didn’t ruin my personal struggle so the course started on time,” says Mayor Gemma Alvarez.

Lucia and Roja run through the corridors that open the classrooms of the school, in the green and black desert of the extreme southwest of Asturias, used to being in the news only because of the fires that sometimes threaten the forest of Muniellos from the south or because of the conclusion of some heroic deal.

Saul Fernandez and Maria Palacios with their two students, Lucia Mendez and Rokia Tambedu.

The school is clearly sized for another historic moment. It is a center for miners’ families, designed when they were large family units. On the first floor, a library, and on the second: a multipurpose room, a music room, a computer room, a science room and three more with desks, a blackboard and extensive study materials. “It’s a shame that there aren’t more students because the facilities are in perfect condition,” said Maria Palacios, a kindergarten teacher and, this school year, principal, secretary and head of instruction at San Jorge. Forced labor on the moon, which she accepts with resignation and good humor.

The educational team that accompanies Palacios consists of four temporary teachers who teach physical education, listening and language, music and English. “This center has no fixed places, different teachers come every year, many of us also work at the San Antolín school”, the capital of the council, points out Saul Fernández, a physical education teacher, while beside him, restless, as befits their age Lucia and Rokia open the science classroom. “This is the primary school children’s classroom – says little Lucia – Lula’s brothers”. “We miss Lula,” Roja adds of her classmate from last year, who, along with her two brothers, enrolled at a school in La Coruña after the start of this course. Her parents left Ibias, like many others, to look for the future, leaving the school in legal limbo, as it is not legally possible to keep a center open with only two students unless some exceptional circumstance justifies it.

“The good news is that the school is still open, but we need to get a family to come and live here, we are doing everything we can, but we need more help from the institutions,” says Javier Chacón, president of the neighborhood council of Funds de Villa and one of the most active neighbors in the area in finding families to avoid public school closings. Chacón is accompanied in this mission by Jorge Salgueiro, promoter of Espacio Tormaleo, a business project that seeks to economically reactivate the Tormaleo area since last August. “We will start hiring people in the coming months – says Salgueiro – and we are also talking to the City Council about reactivating spaces that help the economic recovery of the area.”

In 2024, two more students

For the school, the miracle is difficult, but not impossible. For the next school year, it is about at least one family with two children or two with one settling in one of the surrounding towns to reach the minimum enrollment of four students and for the San Jorge school to receive an extension that the low numbers of the public investments involved in keeping the school open hardly justify it. And this is that Lucia and Rokia have two sisters who have not yet finished their first year, but who will be students for San Jorge in the academic year 2024-2025. Neighbors want more than just the school to stay open. It is bringing life back to what was not many decades ago an economic hotbed, thanks to the mine. And for this it is essential that girls can feel the connection to their land and maybe want to stay when they grow up.

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