The Amazon challenge: how to go to school in a rainforest

MANAUS, Brazil — The future of public education in the Brazilian Amazon rests on the shoulders of high school teachers like Denanci Silva, who one evening late last year was explaining the difference between "porque," "por que," "por quê" and "porquê" to an audience of thousands.

Her “classroom” was a television studio in the Amazonian capital of Manaus, and her audience was spread out in far-flung riverfront communities too small to have a high school (or often, electricity). They watched Silva’s lesson live via satellite on 42-inch LCD screens powered by generators.

The technology is state-of-the-art and Amazonas state has won several national and international prizes for its implementation. But it is also riddled with problems, as is just about every educational innovation in its infancy. So while the future is promising, it is not quite here yet.

Meanwhile, the past of Amazonian schooling is still very much present in a tiny blue-and-white wooden schoolhouse four hours by motorized canoe from the nearest town. The teacher, Glimalde De Souza Menezes, is kind and encouraging, but not college-educated; he lives in a room adjacent to the sole classroom.

His 18 students range from first through fifth grades and share 10 desks; the day lasts four hours. Children learn by methods common across the developing world: copying off the board, filling in blanks and memorizing by rote.

The value of a degree

Brazil’s march toward modernity can look like a smooth upslope. But there are plenty of obstacles, none more vexing or worrisome than the country’s public education system.

In the last decade or so, focus on universal primary education has pushed school attendance, at least officially, admirably close to 100 percent. But quality has not accompanied quantity, and the mishmash of municipal and state school systems is widely criticized. In larger cities, private school is a no-brainer for anyone who can afford it.

Amazonas state — and the rest of Brazil’s Amazon region — poses a particular challenge. Outside the 1.7 million person capital, there are another 1.5 million “Amazonenses,” many of whom live in villages many hours or even days via the sinuous river from the nearest town.

Only 10 of the state’s 62 municipalities can be reached by road, which is not to say that all communities within them can be, said Gedeao Amorim, the state’s secretary of education. Delivering supplies — textbooks, desks, food for school lunches — can get very tricky. The boat journey to some schools can extend to 40 days when the rivers are low; in many cases, the cost of transport exceeds the cost of what is being transported.

Simply put, running a school system can be a logistical nightmare. But so are a lot of things in the Amazon, and Amorim sees the upside. “Things are happening in public education recently with much more speed than before,” he said. “Fifteen years ago things were still very precarious.” A national school funding reform in 1998 brought new resources to primary schools; in 1999, Amazonas started a program to provide its teachers with college educations. By 2007, he said, 100 percent of teachers in Amazonas schools, both state and local, had a college education.

But as evidenced by teachers like De Souza, statistics crumble to reality, especially where high state standards meet the often inefficient or freewheeling world of the locally run schools.

Brazil is one of the world's fastest-growing major economies and an emerging player on the international stage. But a glaring weakness remains: its unequal education system. In this two-part series, GlobalPost looks at the challenges to bringing modern education to the poor northeast and the remote Amazon.

As Brazil becomes an increasingly developed country, producing airplanes and automobiles and using technology to protect its natural resources, education has become an important prerequisite to joining the middle class. Yet many companies seek better-educated candidates from private schools, leaving public school students who make it through school and even university to struggle to join the elite professional classes.

One-room schoolhouse

Take the struggles of Primavera. That there are schools at all in places like this isolated 50-person subsistence farming community is something of a miracle. And though De Souza did not go to college, community leaders are happy to have him: they had to fight hard to persuade education officials to get rid of De Souza’s predecessor, whose work ethic they questioned.

They recruited De Souza from another community further down the river. “I’m the one who chose him,” said Cleude Braga Paola, who grew up in the community where De Souza used to teach. “We knew about his work habits. We knew he liked to work.”

And though De Souza is a kind-hearted man in his 30s, he is hardly preparing the children for life in the 21st century. 

When he guides second and third graders through a poetic five-sentence story called “The Timid Lizard," they read aloud in a phonetic syllable-by-syllable staccato. “The-liz-ard-re-sem-bles-a-green-and-yel-low-leaf,” they say, many stumbling over every other sound.

De Souza does not lead a discussion of the story, or ask the children to summarize it. There’s no Q&A. There’s no effort to explain what it means that the lizard “drinks in the sun,” or why he stays so still. The students who struggle don’t get extra help, because there is simply no time: De Souza is busy giving a math lesson to the older students, and it’s not as if he’s going to volunteer to stay after school for free when he is only making $350 a month, barely above the nation’s minimum wage. 

The school is also without basic supplies, a constant complaint of distant public schools. In some places, you hear it’s the municipal officials taking supplies or money for their own use; in others, you hear it’s the teachers.

That’s just a minor part of the air of the Wild West that seeps into governance out here. The mayor of the closest town, Novo Aripuana, was murdered in 2002, for example, and the current mayor was one of the suspects. In the next municipality downriver, Manicore, the mayor was shot in January 2009, presumably also by political rivals; he returned to his post in November as a paraplegic. Try making lack of pencils a major issue in that kind of environment. 

Because local municipalities run most primary schools, they are not directly under the state’s control. Amorim, the secretary of education, can push and prod mayors, he said, and he has even recently instituted a cash prize for high-performing municipal schools, but he cannot tell them to pay the $700-plus a month that the state does.

Give De Souza a college education and some textbooks, and he might be the kind of teacher you want your child to have. He juggles the students of differing abilities with some ease, explaining to one mystified girl why nine minus nine equals zero by striking through nine hash marks on the board while putting another to work on two-digit subtraction, and watching over first-year students who struggle to copy a writing assignment off the board.

He tolerates the girls’ giggles and the few who consistently want his attention, shouting “fessó! fessó!” a shortened version of “professor.” There’s another distraction: a chick that someone has brought in that pitter-patters around on top of his desk, like a classroom hamster without a cage.

But the lack of time, shortage of desks and heterogeneous classroom mean results are less than stellar. The fifth-year students, some in their young teens, come in halfway through the day — when the youngest students are leaving — and spend their entire time in class that day copying and completing a spelling assignment about words containing “j” and “g.”

And keeping students in school past the fifth year is the current challenge for Amazonas. In places like Primavera, any parents wanting their children to complete the second half of “basic education” — sixth through ninth grade — traditionally had to ship them to stay with relatives in the nearest town or move there themselves.

Moving to the city, even when it is possible, raises all kinds of other issues: children often stay with distant relatives, who don’t keep a close watch on them just as they are approaching adolescence, for one. And the whole process leads to a shrinking rural population, something the government hopes to avoid.

The city schools aren’t always that great, either. A stop into a second-grade classroom one morning in Novo Aripuana found a 12-year veteran teacher named Maria Iris Menezes giving a dictation to her students. It was clearly too hard for them — two girls named Juliana and Giovana wrote out a string of letters completely at random, although Giovana stuck in a random “Mazda” here or there, presumably having seen the word on the back of a pickup truck.

But children of Primavera recently gained another option: they can attend a gleaming state school for sixth graders (and eventually expanding through ninth) just a few minutes up the river — with boat transportation provided for free.

The J.W. Marriott Jr School is part of the Juma Sustainable Development Reserve, a project run by the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation in coordination with the state government and funded by major corporations, one of which is apparent in the school's name.

Boats pick up students from river communities at the beginning of the week, and bring them back at the end; they pay nothing, stay in a hammock-slung dorm and eat three plentiful meals a day in a small dining area. Students attend class for one week of every two, but for about eight hours a day. And so many adults who never finished grade school wanted to attend as well that there is a separate class for the 18-and-over sixth-grade crowd on the alternate week. 

Students work in groups and get homework on their week off that involves research in their home communities. They sleep in attractive wood barracks that from the outside look a bit like an ecolodge. Teachers live in the next cabin over, four of them, all seemingly energetic and happy to be where they are. “It makes a difference,” said one, Jose Alves Pinheiro, “to have all the infrastructure you dream about in a school and that in the municipal schools we never had.”

For the 2011 school year, similar models will be opened in three other reserves.

State-of-the-art technology

But the crown jewel of modern education in Amazonas is clearly the satellite-powered schools, known officially as Teacher-Present High School With Technological Mediation.

The title is to distinguish what they do from distance learning, notes the man who runs it, Jose Augusto de Melo Neto. In every one of the 700 or so video classrooms scattered across the state, there is a generalist teacher reinforcing lessons given by the specialists like Silva, the grammar teacher. 

As Silva taught her grammar class, a chemistry teacher and a biology duo were in nearby studios, teaching thousands more first- and third-year students across the state. Each classroom has a webcam and computer, and the on-site teachers can click to “raise” a digital hand icon to let Silva know someone has a question or wants to volunteer an answer. A technician can then activate the local school’s webcam, and put the student on split screen with the teacher so everyone across the state can watch their interactions.

In theory, anyway. During GlobalPost's visit, contact between students and their TV-star teacher was difficult: Silva often couldn’t hear the students, the students sometimes couldn’t hear her, and the words she wrote on a stylus-operated interactive whiteboard bled all over the students’ screens.

Lectures last a maximum of 30 minutes, then the students move on to an activity they do on their own, followed by interaction with the teacher, and back to more lessons. There is no switching classes; it’s one subject per day, though by the end of the year, they have received the same subjects in the same proportion as traditional high schools.

“In Amazonas, we don’t have enough teachers specialized in subject areas,” said De Melo Neto. “We’re short on biology teachers, chemistry teachers and even Portuguese-language teachers.” And that’s in the cities — having such teachers available in distant communities is unimaginable. So 25 top teachers from Manaus lead the television lessons from a studio complex known as the Media Center.

The Portuguese teacher, Dinanci Silva, has an excitable energy about her, and she seems to try, more than most, to connect to students hundreds of miles away. A question comes in from classroom 34 in the municipality of Manacapuru, and as soon as the webcam is activated, she beams. “I’m so happy when the classroom is full!” she said. Later, a girl from Maniquiri waves at the webcam, she waves back. “Maniquiri is always participating!”

Silva says she thinks the satellite program is in some ways better than in-class teaching. The teachers have many more resources on hand, including multimedia tools and animation. The students she teaches live are always chatting among themselves and interrupting her, she said; remote students — many of whom don’t have television in their communities — pay attention.

But it also forces the teachers to be on task. “In regular schools,” she said, “the teacher can just get to school and stick something up on the board. Here, you can’t do that. The realization that thousands of students are listening, that places on the teacher’s shoulders a very big responsibility.”

Still, a visit to Rainha dos Apostolos School out highway 174 in a rural area of Manaus — one of the closest schools to adopt the satellite program — revealed further flaws.

At the school, three contiguous classes were packed with about 40 students each. They were largely attentive to the lessons being taught — on that evening, chemistry, physics and philosophy. The lesson introductions were slickly produced, with animated graphics. But from some parts of the room, the teacher was hard to hear, and sound from one room bled into the other.

And in the room where students were getting a chemistry lesson on protons, neutrons, electrons and the periodic table, Eline Catunda — the generalist teacher on site, supposedly so key to personalizing the video lesson — simply operated the computer equipment. After the 30-minute initial lesson, when students had the not-so-overwhelming task of copying and answering two multiple-choice questions in about 20 minutes, she did not make any effort to help or explain or review the lesson. (She said afterward that she was unfamiliar with the material covered.)

On the other hand, there is no guarantee a traditional classroom would be any better, even if it were possible. And students seemed to like the program. “At first it put me to sleep,” said Thiago Barroso, a 16-year-old student who would have to take buses for three or four hours a day to get to the nearest traditional high school in Manaus. “But you get used to it, and then you understand the teacher as if he were present.”

“It’s a bit weird,” said Daniele do Carmo Silva. “You can’t talk to the teacher to answer your questions. But we learn because they explain it well, and give lots of examples.”

That evening, the chemistry classroom at Rainha dos Apostolos was chosen to answer one of the multiple choice questions — and was connected to the teacher in the studio via webcam. But the connection was choppy and the microphone didn’t work. The student had to scribble the answer on a piece of paper, and hold it up to the webcam. There was a lot of wasted time in the effort, as thousands of students looked on.

A lawyer and a judge

So despite immense steps forward in a virtually impossible logistical battle, bringing education to distant corners of Amazonas state remains precarious. Just ask Jose Erivaldo Araujo Campos what he was doing waiting in vain outside the Novo Aripuana education department all day with two of his five children one Friday in November.

Araujo Campos, a farmer who makes his income raising passion fruit, bananas and watermelon, goes to great lengths to get his children to school. Since he owns a boat, he is able to shuttle his kids up and down river to various schools but he estimates it cost him more than $1,000 in fuel during the 2009 school year to do so. On that Friday, he had come into Novo Aripuana on an errand: to pick up some documents from the town education department for one of his children. He brought two of them, 10-year-old Jose Erivelto and 8-year-old Valcinei, along on the five and a half hour trip that started at 2:30 a.m.

But no one was in the office when he got there, and at three in the afternoon, they were still waiting. It appeared the secretary of education had done what several schools in town had also done: switch a Wednesday holiday to Friday to take advantage of the long weekend. So Araujo Campos set off on the long trip home — another $18 or so in fuel down the drain. He would have to come back the next week. Jose Erivelto and Valanli, by the way, want to become a lawyer and a judge. They probably have a better chance of achieving their dream than they would have a decade ago, but there are a lot of obstacles in their path.

Read about the challenges of bringing modern education to the poor northeast.

Seth Kugel is a former third-grade teacher in the New York City public schools through the Teach for America program and studied education policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.