Erivalda Santana Gabriel, 53, studied only until the second year of elementary school, but does not need to know how to read detailed reports, full of percentages and colorful graphs, to know how much education has improved in Sobral, Ceará. The public school where her 13-year-old son Adleyn studies bears little resemblance to the one she attended, or even to the one her eldest daughter Alana María, 31, knew two decades ago. “Ah, it’s improved a lot, the lunch is good, the coordinators [pedagógicas] they are good people, and the director…. It’s wonderful!” exclaims Santana, just before starting her shift as a cleaner at a hotel.
Her enthusiasm with the principal is due to a simple but powerful gesture: “When a student is absent, he sends a WhatsApp asking him why he didn’t go to class and to remind him that, if he’s sick, he needs to take a certificate.” After three days of absence, a social worker knocks on her door. Absenteeism is one of the many ills that afflict public schools in Brazil.
What is interesting in this industrial city of 200,000 inhabitants, where there is plenty of sunshine and opportunities have been scarce for decades, is that students, teachers, politicians and families led an educational revolution that other municipalities are watching with admiration. They buried the idea that there are children who are incapable of learning. Sobral has also had a place in history since 1919, when a British scientific expedition arrived here to witness an eclipse that confirmed Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.
Sobral’s first great achievement was that, when he finished the first one, at the age of six or seven, all boys and girls can read and write, regardless of gender, race and social origin. If in 2001 half the total number of illiterate students was, in a few years that rate dropped, and today it is zero. And that, in such an unequal Brazil, is a major triumph. In just a few years, this municipality, which had one of the worst results in the Basic Education Development Index (IDEB), placed itself in the lead of this national reference ranking.
Something so basic represents a victory because elementary education today, in fact, has already reached the most remote places in the country, including indigenous villages in the Amazon, but its quality leaves a lot to be desired. And the pandemic aggravated diseases that were endemic. Three out of four literate students cannot read nine words in a minute, according to a recent survey by the Lemann Foundation. Nine words in a minute, that’s the caliber of the challenge before it even begins to address the serious consequences of the inequality that has hampered the advancement of black individuals since they step into high school.
The pandemic kept Sobral’s students away from classrooms for almost a year. Initially, they received materials through WhatsApp, or printed out in the case of those who did not have a cell phone or Internet. Then the teachers landed on YouTube, but they also went looking for students who hadn’t returned to class.
This week, Marta Cristina Pereira traveled 700 kilometers from Pernambuco to Sobral in search of inspiration and hope. Secretary of Education of Serra Talhada (87,000 inhabitants), last Thursday she shared her concerns with several colleagues in one of the opening sessions of the Lemann Center for Leadership for Equity in Education, to which this newspaper was invited. “We still can’t break through the political barriers. My feeling is that we swam, swam, and died on the beach. I come with the hope that my mayor will be touched, because if she doesn’t react, we can take back what little progress we have made,” he said.
The objective is to attract and train mayors and educational managers so that they can draw lessons from Sobral’s experience and adapt them to their needs. One of the knots that impede progress is the tradition that school directors are appointed by councilors based on political interests. The ingrained exchange of favors. A measure that in this case is legal and opens the door to leaving something as decisive as the future of students in the hands of illiterate people. For this reason, Sobral’s revolution began with unpopular measures: dismissal of employees who failed technical tests, centralization of schools and the end of hand-picked appointments of directors and pedagogical coordinators.
The formula combines political will, perseverance, well spent, teaching incentives, evaluation of results and, as a result, adaptations to changing circumstances, explains Veveu Arruda, a professor who drove the revolution when he was mayor in the past decade. The road is long, but you can start with something simple, he emphasizes, such as teaching the 200 days and 800 hours per year that the calendar stipulates. “We are the country with the fewest teaching hours in the world, and they are not even well counted”, he complains. But this monumental collective failure has more ingredients: “Everything is a reason for not having a class: if it rains, if it doesn’t rain, if it’s the principal’s birthday, if someone has died….”, he enumerates, desperate.
In Brazil, public schools have poor quality and a worse reputation. So much so that, when a family prospers a little, the first thing they usually do is enroll their children in a private school. And, in a reflection of the brutal inequality that plagues Latin America’s richest country, while compulsory public education (ages 4 to 17) is deplorable, federal universities are so good that competition to enter is fierce. It is the public service that the privileged most appreciate.
As if that were not enough, the classroom widens the huge fissures that tear apart Brazilian society: “The school, which should reduce differences, actually enhances them”, explains Anna Penido, director of the newly opened institution, which includes a branch of research and evaluation. Studies show that black and poor students even today learn less than their peers, they leave school more, and schools where they are the majority have teachers with worse training. A vicious circle. Penido’s mantra is that no child is left behind.
The strategy of having the principal —or, if possible, the mayor or mayor herself — call the absent student’s home conveys to his family, in a few words, the notion that education is something very important. Many of them would no doubt have wished they could finish school and dream of university.
A city hall such as Mata de São João, a municipality in Bahia with 47,000 inhabitants that has just implemented an ambitious facial recognition system to control students, has also sent representatives to Sobral looking for tips to deepen the change. “Our biggest problem is the lack of leaders”, says councilor Alex Carvalho to his counterparts. The mayor of Barbalha (Ceará), Guilherme Saraiva, seeks to clarify technical doubts about the transformation and gives a glimpse of what he considers to be the key ingredient of the Sobralense revolution: “I think they were successful because the governments continued”. The Brazilian city that prides itself on being the educational capital of Brazil is also the birthplace of one of these family clans that, from cities and regions far from the centers of power, produce mayors, governors, senators and even presidential candidates. In this case, the Gomes, whose leader, Ciro Gomes (PDT), was third in the elections won by Jair Bolsonaro in 2018.
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