Our team recently had a site visit to Bairro Educador de Heliópolis, a neighborhood on the outskirts of São Paulo that houses Campos Salles Municipal Elementary School. This model school environment supported by our partner Cidade Escola Aprendiz taught us how students and communities can be empowered through education. Here is what we saw and learned.
Situated in the southeast of São Paulo, the neighborhood of Heliópolis occupies an area of approximately a million square meters and has over 200,000 inhabitants. It is the biggest community in São Paulo and its origins date back to the 1970s, when São Paulo's City Hall had families removed from the neighboring region of Vila Prudente, allocating them to temporary housing near Heliópolis Hospital.
Since its beginning, the story of Heliópolis connects to key issues of life in peripheral areas of large Brazilian cities. The temporary shelters became permanent, and immigrants and low-income laborers moved to the community. There was intense demographic growth and a lack of urban planning for the area. It was in this context that inhabitants, workers and the community organized themselves in order to demand their rights to housing, healthcare, education and security.
This mobilization in favor of the community transformed Heliópolis into a region of strong political engagement, especially through social organizations. At the same time, the population also realized the importance of education to human and community development. Concerned with the future of the community, they gave their engagement a motto: Heliópolis, Educator Neighborhood.
This large community of São Paulo found teaching and learning to be the means of improving their quality of life in face of the inequalities which impacted it. The political challenges experienced since the 1970s revealed education to be a way to engage people's potential and promote citizenship and human rights. According to UNAS (União de Núcleos, Associações dos Moradores de Heliópolis e Região) this vision shows that education permeates everything and that a school is a leadership center within its community.
The best-known school in Heliópolis is Presidente Campos Salles Municipal Elementary School (EMEF Campos Salles). The institution has a history of promoting citizenship and social justice, including its involvement in the social movements of its surroundings. Run for many years by Braz Rodrigues Nogueira, one of the local political leaders, the institution believes in a relationship which strengthens the dialogue between students and teachers. "It is a human school in which the student will feel and learn with the adult,” states the recently retired principal.“And the adult will learn with the student."
Braz took on the administration of EMEF Campos Salles in 1996, drawing inspiration from Paulo Freire's educational methods and from Escola da Ponte (Portugal) in order to reformulate its entire pedagogical project. The goal was to bring students' daily lives closer to the community, valuing independence, responsibility and leadership. In tune with the history of Heliópolis, Braz has always believed that school is a crucial point in strengthening neighborhoods.
This new concept of education sprang from the desire to promote peace and democratic values in an area affected by high rates of violence. The principal understood that the school should mold citizens who are capable of recognizing their rights and demanding better standards of living—valuing independence and going beyond the teaching of the traditional curriculum. The idea was also for EMEF Campos Salles to be a reference for the future of the area.
In order to fulfill this purpose, the principal promoted student committees which proposed alternatives to local problems; this created spaces of interaction which simulated spheres of government policies and valued the power of the students' union and its capacity for articulation, increasing the students' participation in school decisions. The architecture of the building was also reformulated—knocking down walls which separated classrooms as well as the walls which separated the main school from the rest of the neighborhood.
Today, the school is a model for neighborhood and also referenced on a national level, having become a subject of university studies, press articles and an example for various other schools and social projects within the country.
This new concept of education sprang from the desire to promote peace and democratic values in an area affected by high rates of violence. The principal understood that the school should mold citizens who are capable of recognizing their rights and demanding better standards of living—valuing independence and going beyond the teaching of the traditional curriculum.
Our Partnership with Cidade Escola Aprendiz
One principle of Imaginable Futures investment strategy in Brazil is to look at opportunities where communities are empowered to take a collective responsibility for a quality public education and this is what we saw when we visited EMEF Campos Salles. This school demonstrated how both metaphorical and physical walls could be “torn down” to create change and how school leaders and teachers need to be part of the collective vision around that work. This is a concept we frequently heard as we engaged with communities in constructing our local investment strategy.
It was under this learning that led us to a partnership with Cidade Escola Aprendiz (Aprendiz), a civil society organization that is guided by a vision of a holistic education which, for the last 25 years, has developed individuals and their communities through experiments and public policies. Aprendiz has been a long-time partner of EMEF Campos Salles through their initiative on “Education and Territory” where they aim to integrate communities, public services/institutions and schools in order to develop "learning territories" that promote holistic development for children, youth and members of the surrounding community.
We are excited by our partnership with Aprendiz as it is allowing us to increase the depth and impact of our work, including bringing us closer to the work and enabling learning experiences within Brazil, such as what we witnessed through our visit with EMEF Campos Salles. Getting to know EMEF Campos Salles better taught us important lessons for our future investments, as this school shows that empowering a community to understand its rights, and its power as a collective, leads to real changes in people's lives. In a documentary called "Heliópolis, Educative Neighborhood," filmed by UNAS Heliópolis in partnership with the municipal government of São Paulo, a community member summarizes it this way: "Heliópolis is an educative city on the path to peace." These are powerful words which inspire us for the future of Brazil and their learners.
This school demonstrated how both metaphorical and physical walls could be “torn down” to create change and how school leaders and teachers need to be part of the collective vision around that work. This is a concept we frequently heard as we engaged with communities in constructing our local investment strategy.