Edvalda Torres is developing a new approach to rural education that demonstrates community engagement in the educational process and employs a curriculum that is organized around everyday experience and pressing community needs. She is implementing that approach in a highly successful rural school in a poor community in the interior of the state of Pernambuco, Brazil.
The New Idea
On the basis of her experience as a student and later as a teacher in public schools in impoverished rural communities in the Northeast of Brazil, Edvalda Torres is convinced that the educational needs of such communities cannot be effectively addressed in the absence of new teaching approaches that are directly relevant to important community needs and succeed in enlisting strong student interest and broad community support.Acting on that conviction and working under the aegis of a small community-based nongovernmental organization, Edvalda is spearheading the development of a new school in Ouricuri county, in the heart of the semi-arid interior of the state of Pernambuco, some 630 kilometers to the west of Recife, the state's capital. Located on a farm at a distance of sixteen kilometers from the county seat, the school's physical facilities were constructed by members of the communities that it serves, with limited material support from its institutional sponsor. The Rural School of Ouricuri opened its doors in 1990, and it currently offers instruction in grades one through four to some 170 students from nine surrounding communities.In close consultation with members of those communities, Edvalda devoted several months to the design of the school's curriculum and teaching approach. The outcome of those efforts is a course of study that is built around five major themes: agro-ecology; community organization; social consciousness; health and nutrition; and communication, culture, and humanism. Instruction in mathematics, natural sciences, and the Portuguese language is integrated into the treatment of those themes. The school's calendar is carefully attuned to the region's farming cycle, and its staff is made up of several young farmers who have completed primary and secondary education, a university-trained agronomist, and a small group of largely self-taught apprentices who have bolstered their knowledge through independent study. It also includes a 62-year old, barely literate farmer who is widely known and respected for his environmentally sensitive farming techniques and his deep knowledge of the region's plant resources.Edvalda and her colleagues place strong emphasis on continuing community engagement in every aspect of the school's development. Local farmers contribute with hands-on classes in their fields, and students' mothers prepare lunches in the school's kitchen and assist in instruction on nutritional and health matters. From its side, the school is a key participant in community health programs–including cholera and AIDS prevention initiatives and immunization campaigns–and other community endeavors.
The inadequacies and failures of Brazil's national public education system are glaringly apparent in the Northeast of the country, where illiteracy rates are far higher than the national average and the percentage of children of primary and secondary school age who are actually attending school is far below national norms. In desperately poor and isolated rural communities, the situation is particularly grave. In many such communities, schools are grossly underfunded and poorly staffed, and only a small minority of school-age children complete the fourth grade.High drop-out rates and school failures are the consequence of numerous factors, some relating to the deficiencies of the schools themselves and others associated with the impoverished circumstances of the children whom they are intended to serve. But there is increasing evidence that much of the problem can be traced to educational methods and curriculum content that fail to connect with community needs. Most poor Brazilians in rural areas put improved educational opportunities at the top of their list of priority needs. When probed about that ranking, however, they make it clear that what they want is schools that offer instruction and guidance of direct relevance to the problems that they and their children face in everyday life.Accordingly, one of the most important challenges in addressing the educational needs–and rights–of particularly disadvantaged Brazilian children is the development of new teaching approaches and curriculum content that will engage their interest and enthusiasm and enlist strong community support.
In developing the Rural School of Ouricuri, Edvalda is addressing that challenge with a strategy that has at least three major elements, the first and most important of which is strong community engagement in every aspect of the project. The Ouricuri school was constructed on a piece of land donated by the sponsoring community-based nongovernmental organization, the Center for Consultancy and Support for Workers and Alternative Nongovernmental Institutions. Volunteer workers from surrounding communities constructed its physical facilities–initially a single classroom, to which two other classrooms, an office, a teachers' room, a kitchen, and bathrooms have subsequently been added. The school's curriculum was devised in close consultation with community members, and many of its teachers are local farmers.The second, closely related element of Edvalda's strategy is an instructional approach that links classroom activities to everyday experience at every step. The topics that are emphasized under the five themes around which instruction is organized are heavily influenced by the school's location in a small community in the semi-arid Northeast of Brazil. If the school were in another setting (e.g., a farming community in the southern part of the country), Edvalda would expect it to have a markedly different emphasis. But the intent is to focus on topics that are of central importance for the well-being of the students and their families, to take advantage of that connection as a motivating force, and to convey knowledge of immediate practical utility.The third element of Edvalda's strategy is to demonstrate, through the Ouricuri initiative, that the approach that she has developed can transform rural schools into effective educational and social instruments, and to encourage the use of that approach in other settings. With that end in view, she has prepared a video that describes the approach and accomplishments of the Ouricuri venture, and she regularly consults with education officials and community groups in other communities in Pernambuco and neighboring northeastern states. She is also planning to use the Ouricuri school as a site for training and certifying some thirty new school teachers per year, and her fondest dream is that she will one day play a role in a fundamental restructuring of the national government's approach to rural education.
Edvalda was born in the small city of Serra Talhada, in the semi-arid interior region of the state of Pernambuco. Now in her early thirties, she spent four years as a teacher in public schools in that region, prior to spearheading the development of the Rural School of Ouricuri. Her deep commitment to the educational strategies embodied in the Ouricuri School stems, therefore, from first-hand awareness of failures of traditional schools and teaching approaches to address the educational needs and enlist the full engagement and support of poor rural communities.From her student days onward, Edvalda has questioned the educational methods and curriculum content of traditional schools and has eagerly sought new approaches that are more responsive to the realities and needs of desperately impoverished agricultural communities. In the Ouricuri School venture, she has demonstrated the effectiveness of an alternative approach that starts with an assessment of community needs and resources and links instruction to everyday life experiences.Because of the pioneering nature of her work and the success of the Ouricuri School initiative, Edvalda's advice is increasingly sought by state education departments, municipal governments, and community groups in Pernambuco and neighboring states (Bahia, Ceará, and Paraiba). Her work has also been recognized by a widely publicized prize for "citizen action" in 1994 and the award of a prestigious UNICEF prize to the Rural School of Ouricuri in late 1995.In addition to her work as an educator, Edvalda is involved in a number of other community service endeavors, and she has served as deputy coordinator of the Ouricuri committee in support of a campaign for Citizens' Action against Hunger and Misery and for Life.