Sheltering Kids in Slums With a One-Stop Center

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Want to see the face of education's future? Meet Maria Lucia Kamache. One part principal, one part mom, she runs a one-stop community center in Rio that turns a slum into a neighborhood. In Argentina, teachers embrace immigrant kids, even writing a dictionary to help understand them . Brazil boosts teacher quality with a live, interactive TV show that even reaches schools in the jungle. All of these efforts aim to create a wider sense of community and a more expansive definition of education to help carry Latin America's schools into a new century.

In the courtyard of a former juvenile-detention center, a group of children are laughing and clapping as they practice capoeira, a martial art set to music. The kick-flip-slash dance is one of a dozen activities going on in the children's center in Maracana, one of Rio de Janeiro's poorest neighborhoods. It serves as a community education center for homeless or abused children and teenage mothers. Its aim: to prevent crime among children.

"This place opened as a juvenile jail, but it ... certainly didn't solve anything," says Maria Lucia Kamache, Rio's former secretary of education who in retirement took on the center. "Now we have these halls full of all kinds of activities, and the kids love it."

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In a city with a reputation for violence against and by children, neighborhood-improvement projects are being designed with young residents in mind. "Rio is not innately more violent than other places, but it does have 30 years of haphazard urbanization," says Maria Lucia Petersen, director of Favela Bairro, an internationally recognized city program "to use every factor we can, including education, to break the cycle of violence."

Urban renewal projects are opening up old neighborhoods with new plazas, wider walkways and streets, and new lighting. Preschools and day-care centers are being introduced to neighborhoods that never knew they existed.

Perhaps most important, schools are being used in new ways. More than 2,000 children already benefit from an after-school program to keep youngsters off the streets until mom or dad comes home from work. Research shows after-school hours as a prime time for children to become involved with drugs or be victimized by violence. The program helps more children stay in school longer - or even stay alive.

Schools that until recently were open just four hours a day now care for children from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Children in this "integrated day" receive a month's worth of food staples for their families - but only if they attend school every day.

"We're proceeding from the idea that this kind of school keeps children off the streets - and out of work," says Eloisa Machado Gomes, Rio's undersecretary of education. In a country where in 1995 the International Labor Organization estimated 15 percent of children between 5 and 14 years old worked full time, the concern is understandable. Other programs include an after-school arts class and a sports program - again, only open to kids who go to school every day.

Of the center's 450 regular children, 130 live here. One smiling 10-year-old boy was dropped off at the center by his mother, who never returned. "Police bring children, either who are abandoned or who they think are getting into trouble and could benefit," Ms. Kamache says. Those old enough attend nearby public schools. "I personally visit all the schools to make sure my children are well received," Kamache says. Some of the "live-ins" are mothers as young as 13 for whom the center is a home from which they can continue their schooling while their babies eat, sleep, and play in "infant stimulation" rooms full of blocks and bright colors.

While many of the children here no longer have parents they can depend on, the center also works with local adults.

The capoeira music is turned off as a group of mothers enter, some for an evening computer course, some for a discussion on their children's education. Food baskets are distributed to mothers who take part.

"I've learned that just providing education is not enough," Kamache says. "you have to change society. That means involving everybody and providing more than a few hours of lessons in a classroom."

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