Public Schools Fend Off Invasion of New Ideas

Published on IPS, by Mario Osava, Sept 14, 2009.

ARAÇUAI, Brazil, Sep 13 (IPS) – Two non-governmental initiatives managed to penetrate the walls around public education in Brazil, temporarily assuming responsibility for the administration of schools where they left their seeds planted. But ultimately they discovered how resistant the school system is to innovation.

In the rural schools of Araçuaí, a poor municipality in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais, the Popular Centre for Culture and Development (CPCD) pulled out an entire arsenal of teaching tools, such as cookies shaped like letters, name tags on doors, furniture and other objects, and educational toys and games, among other techniques it has developed since its foundation in 1984. 

Invited by the local government, this non-governmental organisation (NGO) recognised for its creative educational methods accepted the challenge of tackling the abysmal state of the municipality’s schools, and took over the administration of the local Secretariat of Education between August 2003 and late 2004.

They used the approach of immersion in a “literate” environment to improve the literacy levels of rural schoolchildren, after a series of evaluations revealed that students faced serious shortcomings in their reading, writing and basic math skills in all eight grades of primary school …

… Another of the NGO’s central concepts is what it calls “unschooling”.

“Axé gave us a different vision of children, less school-centred, not only as students but as cognitive, social beings,” said Elizabete Monteiro, the educational coordinator at the school. Monteiro was one of the first nine teachers involved in the project, motivated by “the desire to learn” and willing to devote a part of her weekly working hours to this goal.

The first year was somewhat chaotic. The school was housed in a small rented building. There were around 400 students between the ages of six and 19, divided into two shifts. Some classes were held in the courtyard, and disciplinary problems were common. Students walked in and out of class as they pleased, used foul language, and some even made violent threats.

“They were challenging us, testing the school,” said Raidalva da Silva, another of the initial group of teachers.

These problems brought some teachers to tears, or even led them to quit, as in the case of Sonia Rossi. “It was important to leave and important to go back,” said Rossi, who left because “I was afraid and I wasn’t ready for the challenge,” but later returned because “I learned to be a teacher, to appreciate what is important, when everything is at stake, because it wasn’t enough to give classes, you had to be special.”

This new stance won out in the end. A year and a great deal of discussion later, a certain sense of order was achieved. According to Rita Brito, a teacher at the school since 2000, the students told them, “We like you because you care about us, don’t give up on us.” The initiative proved that it is possible to create “a school for delinquents, rebels and street kids,” she said.

The school got a new building, and also became “a centre for the promotion of debate on teaching,” said Monteiro. Some of its former teachers have gone on to become school principals, she added.

The initiative continues today, sustained by the teachers but without the participation of the Axé Project since 2005, when the newly elected city government authorities chose not to renew the agreement with the NGO. As a result, Axé founder and president Cesare La Rocca was unable to realise his dream of “infecting” the entire local public school system in Salvador with the organisation’s proposals. (full text).

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