Cybele Amado believes that every child in Brazil deserves an excellent public education. To make her goal a reality, Cybele is creating a new set of social structures that encourages continuous learning and empowers communities to work with elected officials in ensuring quality education. Perhaps most critically, these new structures foster accountability and continuity whose absence has contributed much to the dismal state of today’s education system.
La idea nueva
Through the Chapada Project, Cybele has designed and piloted a program to intercede in the political process itself. She establishes a discourse between candidates and their communities early in the election cycle and, through public forums, forces future leaders to declare and commit to their intended education agendas. To complement the process, Cybele has designed an entirely new role in society—that of the pedagogical coordinator. Designated by the community, the person serves as a single point of contact to serve all involved parties ranging from the community to the schools and the municipal government. While the pedagogical coordinator plays an organizing function, an additional oversight committee is responsible for ensuring that political promises are instituted. Finally, Cybele brings a spirit of commitment toward improvement to the education system, providing innovative and effective tools for teachers themselves to continue learning and improving.
By creating structures that engender reflection upon and action around the education system, Cybele sparks public debate and community involvement around a critical social issue. The comprehensive approach mediates between the interests of all parties, while setting the groundwork for a system that is continually enriching its participants and advancing itself.
Chapada Diamantina, a mountainous range in Bahia, has always been marked by extreme social and economic disparities. The region’s economy, centered on diamonds and coffee production, was strong in the mid-19th century, but went into a sharp decline as coffee farming spread around the world and diamonds were discovered elsewhere. Without economic opportunities, the population migrated to major cities and the government began to neglect the region, contributing less and less towards its social services. Chapada Diamantina is now second to last in the Economic Development Ratings and last in the Rating for Social Development in Bahia. The education system has not been spared—it too began to collapse as rich landowners built their own schools and controlled access to education. Today, Chapada Diamantina continues to suffer from a weak education system. Nearly 70 percent of the 30,000 children who complete 1st grade are illiterate.
A few key problems hinder the education system. Perhaps most obviously, overall quality of teaching is poor and current methods for teaching are inadequate across subjects. Teachers are mired in repetition, and there is no emphasis on language or reading in the classroom. Students have no support or access to reading materials at home as their parents are illiterate, so without an effective education in the classroom, they have little chance of gaining basic skills.
But most problematic, no effective force exists for those who should be responsible for the education system—parents and public authorities—to correct these problems. Illiterate parents, often having faced a lifetime of systematic discrimination and exclusion from the public sphere, do not feel empowered to demand the changes they deem necessary. The public system’s lack of continuity means that even well-intentioned and well-formed policies do not make it through to implementation. Elected public authorities have shown little interest in building on past education initiatives or in working with communities to ensure that their priorities are met. Thus, an overhaul of the education system accompanies each election. Because there is no system of accountability, parties do not take ownership over their programs. Without active communities demanding municipal action and public attention, elected officials can easily focus their attention elsewhere; as a result teachers are essentially ignored after they receive their postings.
To transform these central problems, Cybele recognized the need to create a system of accountability. First, she created the position of a central coordinator to ensure that each party’s actions were carried out. Then, she began establishing systems that gave each actor—elected official, teacher, parents—ownership over different areas while encouraging both independent and joint efforts.
Based on the philosophy of stewardship, Cybele created a partnership between local governments, the Municipal Secretaries of Education, and civil society organizations in her pilot work known as the “Chapada Project.” The group’s first function, once organized, is to diagnose the problems in the education system by hosting monthly meetings with the teachers and communities. After better understanding the problems and capacities for solutions, they work together to construct a new model that promotes training, reflection, and new work methodologies.
Following the initial diagnosis stage, Cybele works to create new systems that engender continuous improvements in teaching quality, bringing innovative tools for evaluation and consistent reflection on the diagnosis and solutions. To do this, the Chapada Project requires teachers to participate in a continuous training process directed by project coordinators. These monthly trainings focus on pedagogical approaches and are supported by regular visits to teachers’ classrooms to tape and analyze teaching techniques, seminars, education fairs, and study groups. Each teacher receives a quarterly evaluation with concrete measures of success based on their students’ progress. The training program works to monitor teachers and students’ progress while providing a natural support group and an outlay for mutually beneficial learning.
The Chapada partnership is explicitly designed to avoid the pitfalls of constantly changing governments and policies. To ensure that each municipal government makes education a priority and does not sideline the community’s initiative, Cybele constructed a system that implements public debate early in the political cycle, involving parents, teachers, and the community to demand education at the forefront of all political platforms. These day-long public forums have typically included 300 to 600 municipal candidates, school directors, partners, teachers, and students to discuss the needs, realities, and aspirations for the educational processes. At the end, the community votes for its priority issues and municipal candidates sign a binding document to pursue those issues. Most importantly however, the community then forms into an oversight committee to work with the pedagogical coordinator to ensure the agreements are honored and carried through. This relieves the burden of overly relying on parents and instead identifies a particular group who has the responsibility to ensure the results of the forum are executed.
The initial results of Project Chapada are impressive: Students have benefited from improved teaching evidenced by an expanded vocabulary, greater coherence in writing, and a renewed interest in their own education. In only three years, the number of first grade students testing at grade level rose from 33 percent to 74 percent. Parents have also become more involved in their children’s education, as they frequently visit the schools and attend more school meetings. The pilot stage is estimated to have reached 45,000 children, 4,000 teachers, 200 school directors 22 mayors, and 66 municipal secretaries.
While the pilot has clearly shown significant results, Cybele realizes she will have to do much more to spread the program throughout Brazil. To reach her goal, she is now working at the public policy level to establish training standards and procure the necessary funds for the training while building consistent evaluation into national level practice. Cybele has also established the Instituto de Educação, Cultura e Pesquisa da Chapada (Chapada’s Cultural, Educational and Research Institute) as the institution to disseminate knowledge from Project Chapada throughout Brazil. Additionally, to continue to encourage teachers to pursue knowledge and best practices, she envisions creating rural universities in each region that will enable local teachers to attend night classes and pursue continuing education.
Cybele was born in 1967 in the city of Salvador, on Saint Anthony’s Day, a saint known as a powerful orator and educator. Coming from a devout Catholic family, this association exerted a great influence on Cybele’s fundamental values.
At the onset of her schooling, the directors told her parents—people of humble origin—that she could never learn how to read and write because she had “some brain problem,” later diagnosed by a psychologist as slight dyslexia.
Cybele’s school followed a traditional learning method based on phonics, which was inefficient for her needs. After treatment, she began to develop her abilities. Looking back now with her extensive education and experience as a teacher and psycho-pedagogue, Cybele doubts the dyslexia diagnosis and suspects that her difficulties were linked to an inadequate teaching system.
At the age of 14, she volunteered to teach classes to poor children and teenagers at the same school she attended as a student. She took up Pedagogy at the Bahia Education Faculty, and taught at primary schools for six years. In 1990, together with other university colleagues, she created the first Escola Alternativa de Salvador (Alternative School of Salvador), Barca Dalva. She wanted to develop a constructivist school, which would include parents’ participation in the learning process of their children. At the time she also took part as a volunteer in a support program for schools in the periphery of Salvador.
In 1992, Cybele had a heartfelt desire to contribute more effectively to the improvement of public schooling, especially in regions like Chapada. After returning to Salvador, she passed an admission test to be a coordinator in Bahia; she moved alone to the Chapada region and taught fifth to eighth grade at the local school for six years.
As soon as she started teaching, the existing gaps between the age of the students and their grades (the majority were between the ages of 14 and 20) and their serious difficulty in reading and writing became evident. The students were neither able to understand what they read nor to write. Some of the fifth graders did not write and read at all. Troubled at the teenagers’ low literacy level, Cybele decided to change the situation. She started to volunteer with first through fourth graders, marked by the school as “unable to learn”, and discovered that the problem lay in the teachers’ methodology.
To correct the problem, Cybele created the Teacher Support and Assistance Program in 1997 to train teachers in the rural area of the Chapada. Her program had the support of the Program “Believing is Seeing” (Crer para Ver) in partnership with Natura Cosmetics, the Abrinq Foundation and the local municipality. For two years, they held two-day monthly training sessions where the main goal was to train teachers in rural areas in constructive thinking. The work showed great results, reducing the rate of truancy by 80 percent. From there, a wider proposal was constructed, involving more agents. This program was the foundation of Chapada Project.