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You can’t expect just to open the doors of a traditional school and have working children flock in.
Anthony Swift reports from a Brazilian school that has torn up all the rules.

Hide and seek: classroom fun in Bengui.

At other schools children are not given so much attention, or asked what they think of how their school is operating,’ said Elizangela. ‘We can talk to our teachers about anything – even very intimate subjects. They respect us very much.’

Two years back, Elizangela and other children in her class aged between 11 and 13 were worried about their education. Their teacher, who was new to the City of Emmaus School in Belém, Brazil, was failing to turn up consistently. The pupils, who regularly evaluate the education they are getting, tackled him about his absences and got the brush-off. They went to the Head but still nothing changed. They then called for a full staff meeting to consider their concerns, something inconceivable in most schools. The meeting helped the school realize it was adrift from its educational principles and get back on course.

‘In this school,’ comments its former co-ordinator, Graça Trapasso, ‘sometimes it is the teachers who are ahead and sometimes it is the pupils.’

The City of Emmaus School was once totally revolutionary, attracting wide attention in Brazil and from further afield. Now it is among a growing minority of schools trying to make themselves relevant to poor-community children. It was created in the early 1980s when animators of the Republic of Small Vendors, famous for its work with children on the city streets, realized that a major reason why such children had abandoned school was the inappropriate education on offer.

The Republic of Small Vendors had land in Bengui – an impoverished district on the periphery of Belém – and set out to build a school there based on local community needs and priorities. Settled mainly by rural migrants of Amazonian Indian origin, Bengui was home to many working children. After consultation, the animators proposed a school which would affirm the culture and rural origins of the local people and develop their children’s capacity to act as citizens and understand the community’s struggle for its rights.

Everything about the school was strikingly different. In place of the customary brick box with little or no space for play, independent circular classrooms of Amazonian Indian design were distributed in spacious surroundings of playing fields and natural bush. Circular rooms, lacking any set focal point, are ideal for education that emphasizes pupil participation. ‘The children can use the space however they like,’ says teacher Maria José Castro.

The quality of the relationship between teacher and children is regarded as key to the educational process. The teacher is friend, guide and facilitator.

‘We used to joke that we had married Don Bosco (founder of the Salesians) to Maria Montessori,’ says Georgina, a former street educator, at one time responsible for the school’s educational approach. ‘Don Bosco, because of the relationship we offer to the child. Montessori for the richness of the educational materials. Paulo Freire and our own street experience provide the concept of education that starts from the child’s own reality and develops with the child’s active participation.’

Admission preference goes to children from families with the fewest resources. In order to be non-fee paying, the school sought government status. The teachers are state employees but the school determines its own educational priorities and methodology. From the outset it had to retrain new teachers. ‘We had to get them to review their social role and understand that, unless they changed their approach, they would be contributing to the very processes that deny the poorer layers of society their basic rights,’ says Graça. ‘The thrust here is to awaken children to their rights and responsibilities.’

The school dispensed with standard reading primers, which depicted model middle-class families with European-looking children enjoying privileges unknown in Bengui. Instead original materials – text, illustrations, models – are compiled with the children’s participation, based on their own views of their lives, families and community. Learning starts from the children’s frame of reference, reinforcing identification with their community, and moves outwards from there.

The school is not rigid about the children keeping to a schedule, respecting the fact that they have other responsibilities. There is no school uniform – parents can’t afford them.

‘Children sometimes come to say they can’t attend because they have no shoes or no shirt. We tell them: “It’s not your shoes or your shirt that is going to learn. It’s you! So come on in!”,’ says Maria José Castro.

‘Our school is very concerned about children’s rights,’ affirmed Leonidas, a pupil. ‘I think all the children here think about changing the social situation. This is a liberating school.’

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