Just four years ago, Escola Municipal Professor Souza Carneiro (Professor Souza Carneiro Municipal School) in the community of Penha in Rio de Janeiro was known as “Carandiru”. The reference to the notorious former prison in São Paulo was due to a number of characteristics that the school, founded in 1971, began to accumulate in the 1990s. When principal Eliane Ferreira took over the institution in 2012, she encountered conflict, disorganization, dark grey walls, and metal bars everywhere. Many of the students were considered “problematic”. Yet at the end of last year the school was recognized by MEC (the Ministry of Education) as an example of innovation and creativity in primary education.
This transformation was based on a lot of dedicated work, led by Eliane and supported by the entire school community. The principal, who worked in the Complexo da Maré area before arriving at Souza Carneiro, refused to accept the school’s negative nickname. With almost 20 years of experience in education, she began to investigate where the sense of negativity that so scarred the institution was coming from. She spoke to teachers, students, parents and staff, seeking to understand how to remove the stigma.
Eliane realized that it was vital to create conditions where the school could once again be an appropriate location for constructing knowledge. “The school needed to change from the inside, as it was the school itself that had created the stigmatization. The teachers treated the students in a different way. It was the students and teachers that created ‘Carandiru’, and other schools too, when they sent what they considered their “worst” students to the school,” says Eliane. She explains how other schools in the area “referred” students in problematic situations or “lost causes” to Souza Carneiro.
To transform the situation the principal introduced a system of democratic management. She put the Souza Carneiro school community to work for the benefit of the institution, instead of contributing to its decline. An organic, upwardly spiraling process began to take place. “I wanted to challenge people to make them listen. From that point, their practices began to change. They changed their relationship with the space and with the resources. The school didn’t change because of just one project, but by provoking people. From that moment, they began to believe. Soon the project was not just mine, but everyone’s.
One of the key points of the transformation implemented by Eliane was the physical renewal of the school. In her opinion, the dining hall was a symbol of “before” and “after.” “The roof was covered in beans, food, and eggs; there were metal bars everywhere. The environment needed to be happier and more inspiring. The dining hall was emblematic of the problem. It looked like a prison refectory, there was no space at the tables for all the students and it was completely gray,” she says. The involvement of the students in this process of transformation was fundamental. According to Eliane, involving them in making change occur was key to convincing them to defend, rather than destroy, the rebuilt spaces. “They assume responsibility for the running of the school, and that makes it much harder to get involved in vandalism”, she emphasizes.
It is a maxim that physical education teacher Marcel Henriques Maciel knows well. He oversaw the students who were involved in the renovation of the school sports court, taking advantage of the mood in the build up to the Olympics. After hearing students complaining about the dark blue walls of the court, and saying that it wasn’t conducive to playing sport, the teacher asked the board of directors for paint and material to improve the space. In the end, more than 60 students from various school years got involved in the process of transformation. “The students feel the lack of care in a place. It has educational benefits, as they start to take care of it and ask others not to destroy it,” says Marcel.
The teacher has also sought to make students aware of the importance of leaving a legacy for those who will study at the school in the future. It is often difficult for young people who live in communities with poor sanitation, inadequate infrastructure and little planning to absorb this concept. “They often don’t understand how to leave something behind for someone, as no one leaves anything for them. They need to learn notions of conservation and maintenance. They don’t experience this in their day-to-day life. Often, living in favelas, they don’t think about the future”.
Physical and pedagogical change
When questioned about why the school is considered innovative, Eliane’s answer results in a further reflection. “We don’t have a concrete innovative element. Where is this innovation? If I had to define it I would say that it lies in a new way of being in and looking at school, not just in building a new laboratory. It was a long process to get to the point where the laboratory could be built and the vegetable garden created.”
The vegetable garden to which she refers is a symbol of the rebirth of the school, which is once again admired in the region and receives students from various areas, including those from the local middle class, just as it used to before the 1990s. Created by a retired science teacher, the garden was created to encourage students to take up an activity outside the classroom, which was connected to nature and the revitalization of the site. When construction began, there were those who bet that it “wouldn’t last a week”, based on previous attempts where it suffered from neglect and a lack of appreciation for the space. But today the garden is still here, cared for and protected by the students.
Eliane says that until she started to encourage the process of transformation something like this was unthinkable, as even the teachers were discouraged and discredited. That is why she never considered dissociating the improvement of the physical space from the pedagogical process of transforming the classroom dynamics. Slowly, the teachers began to believe, and this change began to be reflected in their lesson planning. Classes were transformed, and teachers began to hold seminars and joint classes and to promote types of meetings they would not have attempted before, when they lacked the confidence that such plans would work.
Among the results of the structural reforms that the school has experienced is a study room where computers are connected to the Internet. The space was one of the demands of the students, who asked for a place to carry out group work and research. It is also where the student guild holds meetings. Although the computers were here before, the method of making the most of the resources is new. At a time when the debate about education and technology is the focus of much attention, Eliane explains her concern about the insertion of technological resources in the school environment.
“The main role of the school is its intellectual dimension; if we’re going to bring in technology, then the school has to think about how to use it. We need to continue asking questions, when we bring new things into the school, so that the students look, and learn how to use them, and to think critically and learn how to do things from that starting point. Making someone think today requires a different dynamic from 100 years ago. When we resist this, school becomes boring,” she says. “When the school shifts on its axes and begins to experiment, it appears that the students have changed, but what has really changed are the activities and the forms of knowledge production; we need to have the courage to challenge the student to respond in different ways.”
The transformation of the Escola Municipal Professor Souza Carneiro can serve as an inspiration for other institutions. As Eliane emphasizes, when dealing with education you need to train yourself to see clearly. “The challenge that remains is to make people deconstruct school culture, not in the sense of a brief innovation which is separate from the essence of the school, but breaking with a culture that distracts us and makes us miss what is really important in education.”
Today, parents are surprised when they visit what has become known as “the school that turned it around.” Walking around the school, Eliane sees how at ease the students are, now that they feel the school belongs to them. “We need to see what really goes on in the classrooms and in the schoolyard. That is what really matters. The big challenge is to make the school a space where students want to be. They ask if they can stay longer to do some work, they don’t want to rush off as soon as possible. The school must have meaning for the student. (We have to) understand that it is a place of learning, but it can’t have the same structure as the last century, which doesn’t work for the students of today.”