Mrs. Erivalda Santana Gabriel, 53, who was only able to study up to the second of basic education, does not need to read detailed reports full of percentages and colored graphs to know how much education has improved in Sobral, a city in the poorest Brazil. The public school of her 13-year-old son Adleyn, with which her eldest daughter, Alana María, 31, had two decades before, or with which she knew herself, has little to do. “Oh, it has improved a lot, the snack is good, the coordinators (pedagogical) are good people and the director…. It’s wonderful! ”Exclaims Santana as she begins her shift as a hotel cleaner.
His enthusiasm for the academic head is due to a simple but powerful gesture. “As soon as a student is absent, he sends a WhatsApp to ask why he has not gone to class and remember that, if he is ill, you have to send the receipt.” With three days of absence, a social worker knocks on the door of the house. Absenteeism is one of the many ills that afflict public schools in Brazil.
The interesting thing about this industrial city of 200,000 inhabitants where there is plenty of sun and for decades opportunities were scarce, is that students, teachers, politicians and families starred in an educational revolution that other municipalities analyze with admiration. They banished the idea that there are children incapable of learning. Sobral also has a little hole 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 first, at the age of six or seven, all the children could read and write regardless of their gender, whether they were more or less poor, black or white. If in 2001, half of the student body was illiterate, in a few years it fell and today it is zero. And that, in the very unequal Brazil, is a major triumph. In just a few years, this city with rates that were among the worst was placed at the top of the national classification of basic education, called Ideb.
Something so basic is a victory because elementary education has reached the last corner of the country, including indigenous villages in the Amazon, but the quality leaves much to be desired. And the pandemic has exacerbated endemic ills. Three out of four students of literacy age are unable to read nine words in one minute, according to a recent survey by the Lemann Foundation. Nine words in a minute, that’s the caliber of the challenge before even looking at the serious consequences of the inequality that weighs down blacks since they set foot in school.
The pandemic kept Sobral students away from classrooms for almost a year. At first, the materials were sent to them by WhatsApp and to those who did not have Internet or mobile phones, they took them in print. Later, the teachers landed on YouTube but also went out to look for the students who did not return to classes.
Marta Cristina Pereira traveled 700 kilometers this week from Pernambuco to Sobral (Ceará) in search of inspiration and hope. Councilor for Education of Serra Talhada (87,000 inhabitants), last Thursday he shared his concerns with several colleagues in one of the sessions of the inauguration of the Lemann Center for Leadership for Equity in Education, to which this newspaper was invited. “We have not yet managed to break down political barriers. My feeling is that we swam, we swam, and we never made it to shore. I come with the hope that my mayor will be touched (by inspiration) because, if we do not react, we can go back the little that we have advanced ”, he confessed to them.
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 Gordian knots that prevents 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 some schoolchildren in the hands of illiterate people. For this reason, the Sobral revolution began with unpopular measures: dismissal of officials who did not pass technical tests, centralization of schools, and end the handwriting of directors and pedagogical coordinators.
The formula combines political will, perseverance, spending well, teacher incentives, evaluating results and, based on them, gradually adapting to changing circumstances, explains Veveu Arruda, a professor and the mayor who promoted the revolution two decades ago. The road is long, but you can start with something as 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 counted well,” he complains. But this monumental collective failure has more ingredients: “Everything is a reason for not having class, that if it rains, if it does not rain, it is the director’s birthday, someone has died …”, he lists desperately.
In Brazil, the public school has poor quality and a worse reputation. So much so that as soon as a family prospers a bit, the first thing is usually to enroll the children in a private school. And a reflection of the brutal inequality that corrodes the richest country in Latin America, while compulsory public education (from six to 18 years old) is lamentable, the federal universities are so good that the competition to enter is fierce. It is the public service that the privileged appreciate most.
As if that weren’t enough, the classroom widens the huge cracks that crack Brazilian society: “The school, which should reduce the differences (among the students), actually enhances them,” explains Anna Penido, director of the newly opened center, which includes a branch of research and evaluation. Research shows that black and poor schoolchildren even today learn less than their peers, drop out more, and schools where they are in the majority have the worst-trained teachers. A vicious cycle. Penido’s mantra is that no child is left behind.
The strategy that the principal or even better, the mayor or mayor, telephoning the absent student’s home conveys to his family in a few words that education is extremely important. Many of them no doubt wished they could finish school or dream of college.
Also a City Council such as Mata de São João (Bahia), which with 47,000 residents has just implemented an ambitious facial recognition system to monitor students, went to Sobral in search of clues to deepen the change. “Our biggest problem is the lack of leaders,” Councilor Alex Carvalho tells his counterparts. The mayor of Barbalha (Ceará), Guilherme Saraiva, seeks to clarify technical doubts about the transformation and slides what in his opinion is the key ingredient of the Sober revolution: “I think they were successful because the governments had continuity.” The Brazilian city, which is proud to be the educational capital of Brazil, is also the cradle of one of those family clans that from cities and regions far from the centers of power give birth to mayors, councilors, senators and even presidential candidates. In this case, the Gomes, whose center-left leader Ciro Gomes came third in the elections won by Jair Bolsonaro.