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Jefferson: the Bolsa Familia (3:15) Excerpt from film "Back to School", September 2006
Jefferson faces the challenges of growing up in an urban slum as Brazil attempts to enroll as many children as possible in school.

Country: Brazil

South America Brazil map

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Guiding Questions
  1. What are the challenges the children of Rocinha face as they grow up?

  2. What is the bolsa familia? Why might poor Brazilian parents need an economic incentive to keep their kids in school?

  3. How do the actions of the Brazilian government to encourage education compare and contrast to other countries around the world?
Background Essay
Brazilian student Jefferson lives with his single, unemployed mother in Rocinha, Rio's biggest favela (slum). Brazil has government programs to encourage all children to attend primary school. Fees have been abolished and Jefferson's mother receives a "Bolsa Familia," a small state monetary grant that depends on whether Jefferson stays in school. To get to school, however, Jefferson has to navigate urban streets where gang and police violence erupt without warning, keeping the children in a permanent state of fear.

Many Americans assume that free public education is a fact of life, but that is not true for over 100 million children around the world. The 20th Century saw a growing divide as more and more industrialized countries embraced state-supported education, and non-industrialized countries did not. In the non-industrialized countries, education remained bound by traditional practices or was available only to the wealthy.

To address this problem 1,100 participants from 164 countries met in Senegal in April of 2000 to adopt the Dakar Framework for Action, a re-affirmation of the 1990 World Declaration on Education for All. One of the commitments made in the Dakar Framework was to ensure that "by 2015 all children, particularly girls, children in difficult circumstances and those belonging to ethnic minorities, have access to and complete free and compulsory primary education of good quality."

While the Dakar Framework states that education is a human right, the reality for children around the world is very different. Education is often restricted by gender and/or income. In some places there is a shortage of qualified teachers. Some children around the world must cope with diseases like HIV/AIDS within their families, schools, and communities. Lastly, there can be a conflict between traditional values and the push toward education.

Securing government and community support for education has not been simple. Looked at historically, education has been a challenge that spans ages. Confined to the secular or religious elite for millennia, it was only at the beginning of the 19th Century that Napoleon introduced the concept of free public education, to foster loyalty to the central government. Enlightenment thinkers and their heirs stressed the importance of education as a foundation for representative government. Later, industrialization created the need for basic literacy for factory workers. At the dawning of the 21st century, quality free public education has now been achieved for the industrialized world. The challenge remains to bring it equally to all the world's children.

To put a human face to the global crisis in access to education, WIDE ANGLE filmed seven children around the world as they began school in 2003. This effort resulted in the documentary TIME FOR SCHOOL. The film crew returned to visit them again in 2006, making a second documentary, BACK TO SCHOOL.

Jefferson Narciso is three days shy of his eighth birthday, and growing up in Rio de Janeiro — home to beautiful beaches, modern skyscrapers, and sprawling dangerous slums.

A decade ago, Brazil set out to invest in its economic future by enrolling as many children as possible in school, even the poorest, like Jefferson who lives in Rocinha — the biggest favela or shantytown in all of South America.

When we first met Jefferson, he was five years old and absorbed in the important activities of childhood.

If I let him he'll spend his whole day playing with his kite. Running, playing marbles, riding scooters with the boys. I worry a lot because sometimes he disappears. He goes upstairs to play with his kite and if I don't go up and grab him, he never comes home.

Raising four children alone in Rocinha, Leslie had many reasons to worry.

Shortly after her fourth child was born, she lost her regular job working for a cleaning company.

Drug dealing was a daily reality in the favela, and Leslie felt school was critical to keeping her children on the right path.

Three years later, Leslie is still unemployed. Her boyfriend Ivan has moved in with the family, but is himself out of work.

Leslie's low income qualifies her for Brazil's Bolsa Familia, a monthly stipend she receives as long as her children stay in school.

The 45 dollar check covers about half of Leslie's rent. But as much as she worries about money, Leslie worries more about her children's daily walk to school.

When I'm going to school, sometimes there are gunshots, so I hide in a shack or I stop in some other place.

Rocinha is a battleground of Rio's drug trade, and wars between gangs, police and paramilitary groups have been escalating. Rio has one of the world's highest homicide rates.

ELIANE SOARES There was a week when we couldn't work because the police were searching for weapons. The army arrived; there were helicopters overhead; we were all very scared.

When I see the police I get a little scared because they could shoot at a drug dealer, and a stray bullet could come at me.

Related Links
Back to School on PBS.org

OneWorld PERSPECTIVES Magazine: Learning the Future

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)

Global Campaign for Education

CIA World Factbook: Brazil

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