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

A two-part series on Brazil's unequal education system.

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.