Saturday, January 12, 2013

Brazil: Fighting for a Future in Rio’s Toughest Neighbourhoods

Republished permission Inter Press Service (IPS ) copyright Inter Press Service (IPS) and

Fighting for a Future in Rio’s Toughest Neighbourhoods

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jan 11 2013 (IPS) - Teachers at a local primary school here, the Escola Municipal IV Centenário, are trained to help their pupils find cover in case of gun battles.

This is only one unusual feature of an educational project that goes much further than providing special attention to communities affected by violence in Rio de Janeiro.

The school is one of 152 “Escolas do Amanhã” (Schools of Tomorrow) selected from the municipal school network for their location in high-risk areas.

Complexo da Maré, a “favela” (shanty town) in the northern suburbs of Rio de Janeiro, is home to 1.5 million people and, like other unplanned, self-built housing sprawls, it lacks basic services.

Favelas have historically been dominated by drug traficking cartels and must also put up with the recent emergence of parapolice groups, known as “milicias”, that work for economically powerful groups.

“We are all trained for this. We did a course. So on the days we have police raids, we know what we have to do,” Rita de Cassia Magnino, the school’s head teacher, told IPS.

Their training helps them to protect the school against the effects of an undeclared urban war. The teachers take the pupils to protected places, like partition walls, away from windows where there is a danger of bullets and broken glass.

Magnino hopes that days like these will come to an end when the pacification process reaches Complexo da Maré this year. The plan started in the favelas of Rio in 2008, and includes – as well as police occupation of the neighbourhood – sanitation, infrastructure, health and income generating projects.

The Schools of Tomorrow programme was established in 2009 by the Rio de Janeiro education secretariat to reduce school absenteeism and improve learning in at-risk areas, and its results have far surpassed the partition walls that shelter pupils from flying bullets.

“The challenge is to create schools with high-quality education, in order to meet the needs of communities that have a history of deprivation,” Jorge Werthein, the head of the Brazilian Centre for Latin American Studies, told IPS.

“In order to achieve this, the needs of the communities served by the Schools of Tomorrow must be understood, as well as how to motivate them to participate in school activities,” said Werthein, who is a former director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) office in Brazil.

“The only way to really combat violence is with quality education,” Magnino said.

This quality education is based on six pillars, and benefits over 109,000 children in pacified and non-pacified communities.

The first pillar is a comprehensive approach to education, with more than 50 activities including extra tutoring and cultural, artistic and sports activities.

Unlike other municipal and provincial schools, the Schools of Tomorrow have reading rooms, computer centres and science laboratories.

Another pillar is the “Scientists of Tomorrow” programme, based on a new science teaching method from the Sangari Institute, an NGO, that stimulates children to develop reasoning and critical thinking.

“It is fantastic, the students learn how fish breed by tending an aquarium, and how flowers grow,” Magnino enthused.

“The educational coordinator does important work alongside the head teacher in administering this political-paedagogical project,” she said, emphasising an essential feature of the initiative, which is on-going training for teachers and other educational agents.

“Health in Schools” is another pillar, a programme promoting regular health checks for pupils. When problems are detected the child is treated at a municipal health centre.

Magnino emphasised, however, that the programme would not be possible without the participation of the community and the children’s families.

The programme “Bairro Educador” (Educational Neighbourhood) integrates neighbours and parents with the school and tries to diagnose the problems in each household. It also incorporates volunteer mothers and university students on placements as auxiliary tutors.

Magnino holds fortnightly meetings with parents and guardians, between 85 and 90 percent of whom attend. This is all the more remarkable because many households are headed by a single woman working full time.

“Problems arise when the family does not participate, because it is really important,” said the head teacher, who runs the school for 500 children aged four to 12. “We call so often on mothers and fathers to attend meetings that they end up believing in the project,” she said.

The teachers have also been trained to mediate in conflicts between the school and the community, and to address issues like drug taking and violence.

In Magnino’s view, putting a stop to violence begins at school.

“We explain to the children that violence doesn’t solve anything, but that everything can be resolved through dialogue,” she said.

“What makes the most difference is promoting a different kind of education, one that is comprehensive and uses dynamic methods, that can address cognitive blockages resulting from overexposure to violence,” Claudia Costin, education secretary for the city government of Rio de Janeiro, told the local press.

The results are already visible in the Schools of Tomorrow.

“They manage to capture the children’s interest, and the dropout and absentee rates have fallen,” said Werthein, who described the initiative as “extremely interesting and innovative”.

Official data show the school dropout rate has fallen from 5.1 to 3.2 percent between 2008 and 2011. The national Basic Education Development Index indicates that the Schools of Tomorrow retained more students in the higher grades, at the ages when children are recruited by criminal gangs. This sign of progress is particularly impressive because the schools are in such high risk areas.

“The schools are located in areas where gun battles still occur, or have occurred over a long period of time, and students used to drop out and join the drug traffickers,” Costin said.

The Schools of Tomorrow are still little more than a drop in the ocean among the 1,074 municipal schools, but the authorities in Rio de Janeiro want to extend the programme to their entire educational system, while other states are considering setting up similar schools.

Werthein pushed the boundaries even further. “Establishing quality schools in the favelas is an example that could be emulated in many Latin American countries,” he said.