In the corner of an old warehouse, across the floor from a bunch of kids learning all about graffiti art, Valeria Nascimento sits with one eye on her teacher and another on his boom box. When her mentor gives the sign, the slight, 12-year-old draws a big breath and jumps in.
"Hip hop is for learning, It speaks to us," raps Valeria. "It is fun, it is union."
In today's Brazil, this is what passes for education. It is not school and it is not play, but a mixture of the two, a new attempt to bolster the precarious learning provided by Brazil's primary schools. With the system in crisis - the lack of funding is so acute the education minister last year encouraged children to march on the capital to demand more cash - more and more private organizations like this one, which teaches black culture, are pitching in with extracurricular activities and guidance for the country's youngest students. Innovative, energetic, and committed, their presence is, experts say, evidence that the old methods of teaching no longer work here.
"Public basic/elementary schools are scarcely able to teach the basics," says Fernando Rossetti, a former United Nations consultant and one of Brazil's best-known experts on education. "Some of the most innovative education programs in Brazil today are not happening in schools, but outside them. Civil society in Brazil and in many Latin American countries is, through nongovernmental organizations, organizing itself to supplement school teaching for the poor majority. Many of these partner with schools, but in a complementary way, so that schools can concentrate better on the job of teaching the basics."
And how they need to concentrate. Over the past few years a volume of studies carried out by foreign and domestic researchers show that when it comes to primary education, Brazilian students have a lot of catching up to do. One typical study, released by the Education Ministry last month, found that less than 5 percent of fourth-graders could read properly, and less than 7 percent had the math skills commensurate with their age.
Programs like the one in Mare, a sprawling and often dangerous labyrinth of 16 slums, hope to give state schools more time to concentrate on those core subjects by taking responsibility for extracurricular activities. Educators from the Mare Center for Study and Solidarity (CEASM), a nongovernmental organization set up by former university graduates from the area, now work with eight of the area's 16 primary schools by teaching such subjects as photography, dance, black culture, communication, theater, and music. CEASM is funded by some of Brazil's major corporations, like Petrobas, the state oil company, as well as foreign institutions like the Ford Foundation in the US.
CEASM educators stress that they cannot and do not want to supplant the state schools. Instead, they see their role almost as that of substitute parent.
Unlike children who live in the US and Europe, youngsters who live in and around Mare do not have access to books, educational toys, or even safe playgrounds - much less cinemas, theaters, or museums. CEASM aims to give them that education.
"Many of these kids have parents who are illiterate," says project coordinator Andrea Martins. "They don't go home and read. We try and show them that there is another world out there. We take them to museums or to the cinema once every two months. One of our objectives is to broaden their cultural horizons."
The other main task is showing them that children born and raised in poverty need not remain there. By giving them an education, and a vision beyond the often bleak world of drugs, violence, and despair, they want to show the children that there is hope. Both the children and educators have reacted positively to the new model with kids lining up to learn about things like capoeira - a mix of martial arts and dance - and filmmaking.
The government is attempting to provide full-time education at as many schools as possible. In Rio, 325 of the city's 1,048 primary schools now provide full-time education, while in Sao Paulo, the biggest city in south America, almost all 1,200 are now open from dawn till dusk.
Officials there say full-time community education is such a priority that the city has spent more than $120 million on building 21 Unified Educational Centers (CEU), institutions that open every weekend for extracurricular activities not only for the students but also for the surrounding communities.
"The CEU is a cultural, sporting, and educational hub," says Sao Paulo Mayor Marta Suplicy. "Students here get quality learning ... and people from the community can come to watch films and plays, use the library, play sports, participate in workshops, and take courses. The CEU is more than just a school, it marks a break in the cycle of social exclusion."
Ironically, the exclusion may have been fomented by inclusion. Teachers say the crisis in primary education has spiraled out of control due to Brazil's success in getting children to stay in school. In 2000, 94 percent of Brazilian children attended primary school, up from 84 percent nine years earlier. The additional children go to schools designed to handle fewer students, placing a huge stress on infrastructure, teachers, and resources.
Although primary schools are run by municipalities - states run secondary education and the federal government controls universities - budgets are tight, and low salaries and urban violence have made it even more difficult to find competent teachers. Officials in Brasilia say they need 250,000 more teachers to fill vacancies, and the shortage has become so acute that the government last year announced it will no longer demand that teachers complete four years of university before entering the classroom. The presence of educators from CEASM and other groups go some way to making up for the shortfall. It cannot resolve the situation, but it can help.
"What we are proposing is alternatives," says the group's founder, Eliana Silva. "If we didn't, the chaos would be even greater."