Manoel Andrade is ensuring that low-income, rural Brazilian youth receive the education they need to attend universities, become self-sufficient, and inspire future generations of students to attend school. His program focuses on strengthening rural communities themselves; creating bonds between academic institutions and students, developing forums for discussion, and transforming the way these communities view their access to the educational system.
Manoel’s program introduces the idea of peer-to-peer teaching, where rural youth are empowered to share their unique knowledge with other students so everyone can get ahead. This principal program strategy is based on research indicating that people who both learn and teach a subject absorb and retain 80 percent more than those who simply take in information. By emphasizing collaborative learning, the program instills in rural youth a commitment to self-reliance, community responsibility, and professional development.
Some 32 million Brazilians live in rural areas, where the average 15-year-old attends just over three years of school. As a result, 27 percent of rural adults are illiterate. Manoel realized that to improve these statistics, he would have to change the way rural populations access education. Manoel’s program targets disadvantaged rural youth and assists them to complete elementary and secondary school—with the hope they will continue on to the university. The program builds from one goal to the next: the first step is to help students pass a high school equivalency exam, and the next is to prepare for university admission. As university students, program participants help instruct subsequent generations of young people from their home communities. In doing so, they build and maintain a direct connection between rural youth and academic institutions, with the ultimate goal of promoting self-sufficiency and educational achievement.
Access to education in Brazil is characterized by striking disparities between urban and rural settings. In the State of Ceará where Manoel works, nearly 90 percent of the rural children are poor, according to UNICEF data. These children are three times more likely than their urban peers to drop out of school. This is in part because teachers themselves are often unqualified to competently answer students’ questions. Rural youth also face an uphill battle because their families often keep them out of school to work in the fields.
When rural youth do attend school, they generally only do so for three or four years. In contrast, the average schooling for urban populations is seven years. In spite of the fact that access to public education is slowly improving throughout Brazil, students from rural areas still rarely attend the university due to this extreme lack of adequate primary education. The numbers are telling: of poor students aged 18 to 24, a mere 2 percent make it to higher education compared to nearly 61 percent of their peers in urban environments. This inequality is evident in adult illiteracy rates: just over 10 percent for urban adults compared to 30 percent for rural adults.
It is within this challenging context that Manoel is building a sustainable program that will reduce the education gap between urban and rural areas.
Manoel is building an educational framework in which rural students approach learning as a group activity—with former graduates mentoring current students—which he calls “Cooperative Popular School.” For the first time, students from poor rural areas have access to a quality and diverse educational experience much like their urban peers.
Manoel began the project in 1994 in an abandoned house in Pentecost, Ceará, where he tutored seven students for their final exams. Several of them were determined to enter the university and soon realized success required long study hours. To make group study possible, they began living together in the house, where they shared living responsibilities and planted an organic garden for food.
A defining moment for the project occurred in 1996 when Tony, one of the original group of students, achieved first place in the entrance exam for Pedagogy at the Federal University of Ceará. His success motivated other students to seek Manoel out for help. With the increased demand, Manoel created a formal course called PRECE, which stands for Heart of a Student Educational Project.
Manoel’s strategy has three main components. First, the “Education of Youths and Adults” program is an adult education course that awards a high school equivalency diploma to successful participants. Second, the “Cooperative Preparatory Course” is a project in which rural students study together and tutor their peers in the topics they know best. Former program graduates and university students also volunteer to teach, supported by a university extension scholarship. The third project component consists of a group of supplementary activities. For example, in a course like “Student Journalism,” students, teachers, professors, and community members gather to discuss and learn about a range of topics: politics, the environment, culture, education and sports. Another course example is “Organic Agriculture.” Former PRECE students, now studying agronomy at the Federal University of Ceará, train current students who live in the project’s house to produce fruit and vegetables without using conventional agricultural chemicals. Their goal is to encourage students to practice sustainability and value local agriculture. The program emphasizes ways to incorporate a variety of teaching experience, from a basic computer class called “Computers in the Sertão,” to “Teaching through Sport,” which encourages a spirit of collectivity and motivates new students’ interest in education.
Manoel’s project began in the rural community of Cipó with seven students (six men and one woman), and spread to the city of Pentecoste, a rural settlement in the municipality of Erva Moura, and to the outskirts of Fortaleza. Today, he reaches four hundred students, half of whom are girls and young women. Twenty-two program participants have entered the Federal University of Ceará with housing and food scholarships. Twenty of them return to teach every week in the communities in which the activities are developed. In this way, they ensure the project’s continuity and sustainability.
Manoel has tested his idea in three other communities and hopes to create five new schools within the next five years. He wants this strong base to allow others to replicate the model without his direct involvement. To this end, he has relied on alumni to coordinate two of the outreach efforts and is confident that the methodology is appropriate for most rural and isolated communities, as well as for urban settings.
To strengthen the connection to rural communities, Manoel has worked out a partnership with the Federal University, where he is a professor. The university provides free housing and food to the students, as well as government scholarships for some. The university also funds transportation for teachers—who are university students—to rural communities. Through the university, Manoel plans to initiate a study to measure the social impact of his project. He believes ultimately he can offer consulting services aimed at widespread implementation of his method, which will simultaneously provide financial support. The project receives additional financial support from the Mary Harriet Speers Foundation and from the Independent Presbyterian Church. The Brazilian government has announced its intention to support educational programs for low-income populations and disadvantaged communities. These signs all favor the dissemination of Manoel’s project in the coming years.
Manoel is the oldest son in a family of ten children, most of whom still live in the rural area of Cipó in the Municipality of Pentecostes, Ceará. At the age of nine, he moved to Fortaleza to live with his grandparents. While living in the city, he developed an interest in academics, but faced strong resistance from his family because they placed little value on education and pressured him to work instead.
After overcoming numerous obstacles, Manoel graduated in 1984 with a degree in chemistry from the Federal University of Ceará and soon afterwards obtained his masters degree. Because he was awarded a scholarship, he was able to financially support his brothers when they also enrolled in the university. He obtained his doctoral degree in 1991, conquering his greatest challenge: to be approved in a public examination and become a professor.
With newfound financial stability, Manoel resolved to use his own success as a lesson for creating opportunities for young people. He returned to his original community in 1994 to implement social projects aimed at encouraging people in this region to pursue studies. He began to organize soccer championships in the community as a pedagogical tool for community development. Among this group Manoel met one of his future partners, with whom he initiated PRECE with the first seven students from his rural community. Years later it became the Cooperative Popular School.
Manoel dedicates his weekends and some of his nights each month to planning courses, tutoring students, and coordinating the work between present students, former students, and professors. Motivated by his personal conviction that education of youth and adults in the sertão of Ceará is the means by which they can secure a university education and change their destiny, Manoel is committed to spreading his idea to other communities. He is already training leaders to establish new schools in other regions.