The faces were the same -- just the continents were different.
That is the first thing I noticed when I saw the upturned faces of the poor children of Rio de Janeiro's favelas -- or slums. They looked just like the kids at my school in Camden, N.J. The glimmers in their eyes reflected the same look of hope for the future, the silent prayers that things will somehow be different for them than it is for their parents.
On May 20, I traveled to Brazil with a contingent from Rutgers University -- Camden in response to an invitation from the Fundagao Getulio Vargas EBAPE, an elite business school in Rio. While the visit was focused on business studies, I was invited by Secretariat of Education, Antonio Paiva Neto Sub, to give a presentation on the LEAP Academy University Charter School, the school I founded in Camden. LEAP's model incorporates extended day and year, small class size, parent engagement, college preparatory and placement services, teachers who are paid for performance and partnerships with universities and businesses.
First though, we visited one of Rio de Janeiro's newly "pacified" favelas. The residents, who live in brick shacks along twisting alleys, expressed satisfaction with the amped up security recently provided by the national army. They are relieved that their children can now go to school, albeit protected by machine-gun toting soldiers and convoys of armored personnel soldiers.
But there's also a palpable ache for something more. They want equal opportunity for a quality education for their children, exactly what the parents of LEAP students in Camden sought for their own children when they entered them in the lottery for a place in a LEAP classroom.
The school we visited is unlikely to be successful with 40 students per classroom and only four hours of school each day. At LEAP, a longer than normal school day and an extended school year are contributing factors to why 100 percent of our students graduate from high school and go on to college.
I found the residents and school staff to be hard working, dedicated and frustrated. The school principal, a teacher, and parents who work in the cafeteria all conveyed a striking lack of hope that they or their children or grandchildren could ever earn the same amount of money and respect as rich Brazilians in beach neighborhoods like Copacabana and Ipanema. The children sang for us that day and told us about their dreams to attend college someday.
Later we met with the Secretariat who admitted that Brazil must make changes in its education system. He described the lack of equal access to education which hampers the socio-economic mobility of Brazil's poor. While the state and federal universities are free in Brazil, the grueling entrance exams favor wealthy children who attended private primary and secondary schools, not the poor students who are desperately trying to break poverty's vicious cycle.
To change the paradigm, the Brazilian government must overhaul the regressive education system that favors the rich over the poor. They must send more resources to primary and secondary schools, offer more stipends for poor students to attend private schools, and pay for poor children to join private test preparation courses to fill in the cracks left by their inadequate public education.
The parallels between Camden and the Brazilian favelas were evident. The condition of traditional public schools in Camden are as poor as those in the favelas with outdated curriculum, lack of qualified teachers, and run-down buildings located in drug infested neighborhoods wracked with violence. The system lacks equity and justice for the poor.
LEAP has been invited to partner with Rio schools to tell how providing poor children with access to a great education can help to break the cycle of poverty and the inheritance of educational inequality from one generation to the next. My hope is that the leadership has the passion and commitment to make a difference for the current generation of Brazilian youth. If not, they will see the look of hope turned to weary resignation in children's faces for decades to come.
Start your workday the right way with the news that matters most. Learn more