In the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the biggest barrier to education is violence. Drug dealers and militia control the territories, and civilians are often caught in the crossfire.

When it becomes too dangerous for students to walk to school, classes are cancelled for days at a time. “I plotted the school performance in the map and it was not very hard to realise that the worst performance were exactly in the most violent slums,” Claudia Costin, the Brazilian city’s former Education Secretary, tells GovInsider.

She battled violent gangs and drug-dealing mafia to launch a programme – the Schools of Tomorrow – to improve the quality of education in the most violent slums of the city. Some of the schools in this programme went from being the worst performing ones in the country to being among the top in national standardised tests.

TED talk classes

The programme launched in 2009, targeting 155 schools in Rio’s most violent neighbourhoods.

The government built an online learning portal that for students to study from home when classes were cancelled. 400 teachers from across the city were involved in building Educopedia, with students learning from TED talk style classes, assignments, and games, Costin says. The lessons have “everything that the kids could need” so that learning was not disrupted with cancelled classes, and teachers used the same material during regular classes in school.

These schools typically had high drop-out rates and had to find ways to engage students with interactive learning. The municipality provided them with labs that gave students hands-on experience with science and computers. There was one computer available for every three students, as compared to one for every six students at other schools in Rio.

Attracting capable teachers to these schools was a big challenge, as many didn’t want to take the risks of travelling to unsafe neighbourhoods. To attract talent, Costin increased the salary for teachers who agreed to work in these schools. “They need the best teachers,” she adds. These schools were also given additional teachers to give extra lessons to those who were falling behind.

Teachers had to be specially trained to handle students who got violent with each other. “There is nothing such as a rule of law in those territories…and so we knew that this logic did not enter schools,” Costin says. As a result, school principals and teachers were trained to peacefully mediate conflict and to teach students to resolve disagreements amicably.

Educating parents

Another key barrier to education was the children’s health, Costin found. Children at these schools have little access to healthcare, so the programme placed a nurse in every school and scheduled weekly doctors’ visits to provide students with health check-ups, such as screenings for visual and hearing impairments that could cause impediments to learning.

The city also worked with the public prosecutor’s office to educate parents on laws requiring them to send their children to school, she adds. In addition, parents in Rio and across the country received small cash transfers for ensuring their children went to school and got health checkups.

The programme had a dramatic impact on secondary school students in the Rio’s violent neighbourhoods. Their performance in national standardised tests increased by 33% over two years – on average, this was better than the 22% improvement in grades across the entire school system in Rio. Primary students in the programme improve their grades by 8%. Meanwhile, drop-out rates in the participating schools fell from 5.2% in 2008 to 2.1% in 2014.

Although the programme brought about some change, the high costs meant it was not sustainable. Funding for the programme was cut during Brazil’s 2016 financial crisis, and the higher pay for teachers was cancelled.

Costin believes the programme should have been protected by law to ensure the programme continued regardless of financial and political changes. “I would make sure, and that’s through law and not only a decree, that social protection, health, and education work together in those schools,” she says.

Costin’s initiative continues to have an impact. The country’s largest city Sao Paulo and Curitiba were inspired to replicate the programme. Meanwhile, all was not lost in Rio, she believes: “The investment in professional development for teachers on those areas is something that is not lost.”

What other countries are doing

Governments elsewhere continue to look for ways to deliver education in war-torn and crime-ridden places.

A solution in Pakistan has been to outsource state education to private schools. The arrangement provides families with access to more schools along with higher quality education. The government has made it easier for entrepreneurs to build new schools, which keeps the price competitive and increases access. As a result, it is now cheaper for the government to work with private schools than running its own.

Jamaica, which has one of the highest crime levels in the world, has been running a programme since 1992 to tackle violence in schools. The ‘Change from Within’ programme has improved school attendance and students’ performance. The schools provide leadership training to teachers, involve students in decision making, and run workshops to manage conflicts. They also coached students to build their self-esteen and confidence so they can articulate themselves better and resolve conflicts peacefully.

About 50 million children cannot go to school in countries with conflict. Access to quality education is crucial to break the cycle of violence by keeping children off the streets and inspiring them.

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