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With slum school, Brazilian socialite targets intellectual gap
"I said to the authorities: 'I have 62 survivors. Where do you want me to go?' " she recalled.
Twelve years ago, Bezerra de Mello moved the school to a collection of small cinder-block houses in Mare, a swamp-turned-favela where more than 100,000 people live.
"My philosophy is, you go into a community, you don't change the community," Bezerra de Mello said. "You want the children to feel at home."
It's not ideal. The classrooms are small, the stairwells narrow. The lunchroom is so cramped that the children eat in shifts. Bezerra de Mello says she turns down applicants for lack of space.
Today, there are 430 students, many from broken families in which drugs and violence are the norm. But, at the school, those children have a computer room, a library, free meals.
Arriving one recent day, Bezerra de Mello was greeted with shouts of "Bom dia! Bom dia!" -- good morning! -- and kisses.
Once in the classroom, she got down to business, quizzing 17 pint-size children about what they did the night before. The children sang songs -- in French, Spanish, German. Then she tested them with a memory game.
The whole time, Bezerra de Mello hovered over her young charges, making eye contact, urging them on. What she calls her teaching "methodology" has drawn so much attention here that she has been hired to train teachers from some of the toughest Rio schools.
Instead of having students simply copy what teachers write on blackboards, Bezerra de Mello and her teachers move around the classroom. Their strategy is to engage students intensely but briefly -- for 15 or 20 minutes, tops -- before switching subjects. The goal is to keep them alert. The battle is against boredom.
"The brain is a muscle," she said. "You go to the gym and work your arm. You have to work the brain every day."
Bezerra de Mello says that when children first arrive, many can barely speak, having been used to being ordered around.
"At home they don't speak to each other," she said. "It's short: 'Go here, do that, pa, pa pa,' so the kids can't have a conversation, hold a conversation."
Brandon Santora da Silva, 6, lives blocks from the school in a single room that he shares with his mother and five siblings. There is no running water, no bathroom. He was resentful, even angry, when he arrived at the school, Bezerra de Mello says.
But Brandon's mother reports a change. "He's calmer now," said Líria Gomes Almeida, 30. "He's learned to write his own name."
Bezerra de Mello is not yet predicting success. She's a pragmatist who estimates that 360 of the children she has worked with over the years have died. Still, one former student is in medical school, and dozens have won scholarships to elite Rio schools.
They are the building blocks in her campaign.
"My goal is to diminish the intellectual gap between classes," she said. "You can give food, you can give clothes, okay. But the intellectual gap will be there, so no way of improving a country."