Opinion, by Samantha Barthelemy
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – As an advocate for quality public education in Rio de Janeiro, I am pleased to read, daily, education-related news on Brazil’s mainstream newspapers and to watch, nightly for the past two weeks on Globo’s Jornal Nacional, special features on Brazil’s education system. It seems we have just recently discovered the subject.
The news is depressing though.
An avid critic myself, I believe it is important to point out the flaws and challenges in the system. But I also believe we need to move past criticism, to show how Brazil can move forward to transform its children’s tomorrow.
We need a little hope.
When Rio’s revolutionary Municipal Secretary of Education, Claudia Costin, took office in 2009, her team carried out an assessment of the city’s schools. The news was bad.
Out of 700,000 students, nearly 30,000 in the 4th, 5th and 6th grades were illiterate. Learning deficits “were being swept under the carpet.”
Rio has the country’s largest municipal school system – even though it is not the largest city – with the Municipality responsible for 1,064 elementary schools and 300 nursery schools.
In this complex city, where drug lords and militias control vast territories and violence and inequality are a daily reality for hundreds of thousands of Cariocas, challenges to education extend beyond the general poor quality.
In 2009, Costin’s team identified 150 schools in high-risk areas – high crime, drug-affected neighborhoods – where learning was almost impossible.
In many cases, schools represented the only presence of the State, and even in areas where the process of pacification and occupation was taking place, “it was still difficult for teachers to teach and children to learn.”
Enter the Schools of Tomorrow (Escolas do Amanhã).
Understanding that children in violent or newly pacified areas need special attention, the administration moved forward with a “supportive, no excuse approach” to make learning possible.
Today 151 Schools of Tomorrow offer students a full-day education (from 7:30 AM to 5:00 PM), science labs, reading rooms, internet access, health services, sports and arts lessons and teachers trained to identify and address cognitive blockages resulting from overexposure to violence.
Costin’s ambitious project seeks to transform Schools of Tomorrow into “islands of excellence and security not only for primary school children but for the community as a whole.”
While the program is recent, positive results abound. Data from the Secretariat indicate that student evasion in the Schools of Tomorrow fell from 5.1 percent in 2008 to 3.26 percent in 2010. In now-pacified Cidade de Deus, school attendance increased by 30 percent.
Of the 290 public schools that achieved all goals established by the Prefecture for 2011, 53 were Schools of Tomorrow – 60 percent of schools in high-risk areas achieved the targets, compared with 52 percent of schools in the rest of the network.
Something seems to be working.
The Schools of Tomorrow provide a concrete example of how – with a lot of dedication and a little bit of political will – we can structure Brazil’s education system to empower teachers, students, families and entire communities to transform their own reality and offer Rio’s children a decent alternative to a life of marginalization, regardless of where they are born.
As we continue exposing the evils of Brazil’s education system, the Program is, at the very least, worth paying more attention to. For, as Costin said when speaking at my alma mater in November 2010, “Yes we can, we can change education, we can give another kind of life, we can give a tomorrow to [Rio de Janeiro's] children.”
A Belgian-Brazilian native of Rio de Janeiro and former United Nations journalist, Samantha Barthelemy is a dual degree Masters of International Affairs student with Columbia University and the Paris Institute of Political Studies, specializing in International Security Policy, Brazilian Studies and Communications. http://samanthabarthelemy.blogspot.com/