Joyce Marie Taylor
Scholar Michele Wisdahl, daughter of Rich Wisdahl of Mayo, recently spoke about her educational research studies on the privatization of schools in Brazil, which she has been working on since last November.
Wisdahl is a research assistant for the University of Edinburgh in the U.K. She attended Gainesville High School and then graduated from the University of Florida. She went on to obtain her Masters in Anthropology at Appalachian State University and worked there for a while, as well as at the University of Massachusetts.
She completed a summer volunteer project at Stirling University in Scotland and then went through the masters program at the University of Edinburgh, in hopes of entering the doctorate program. She was also accepted into St. Andrews University where Prince William attended.
Wisdahl's first visit to Brazil was in 2004. While there, she met a single mother with two small kids, four and six. The woman, she said, had lived a modest middle-class lifestyle with her family until she had to bail her brother out of jail, which meant making payments for a long period of time. Because of that extra expense she was unable to continue sending her daughter to private school.
“She told me that she knew her child would have no future as a result,” said Wisdahl.
That incident made a huge impact on Wisdahl, which is why she decided to do her research studies on schools in Brazil. Wisdahl is currently living in the notoriously poor coastal town of Fortaleza in northeast Brazil, which has a population of about 2.5 million people. The population, she said, is disparate and consists of the super rich and the super poor. Some are so wealthy they have helipads, yet they live next to people who don't know where their next meal is coming from. Because of the disparity, education is thought to be the only way the poor population can hope to climb up the socio-economic ladder.
“One out of every four kids who goes to high school in Fortaleza is going to a private high school,” Wisdahl said. “As you can imagine that leads to lots and lots of private high schools.”
One of the strangest things Wisdahl encountered was seeing all the advertisements for schools in the local newspaper, sometimes two full pages of ads.
“The reason why private schooling is so important is because public, free universities are extremely difficult to get into and are the most sought after,” she explained. “So, the only people who can get into these public, free universities, which are the best ones, are the kids who can pass these exams. In order to pass these exams, you have to study really hard, prepare a lot, and that's what these kids are doing.”
The most expensive, well-known schools have franchises and will educate children from four months of age and up. There are even private schools in the slum areas that start at about $20 a month. The most expensive schools are about $800 a month, and that only covers the basic needs, she said.
“In Fortaleza, the minimum salary is about $400 a month,” said Wisdahl.
A lot of the people in Fortaleza, she said, don't even make a minimum salary and half the population lives on $600 or less a month.
Since most of the the private schools are 'for-profit' and have their own union, they hold conferences to strategize on how to make more money, attract more students and hold on to more of their profits. The owners of the larger schools are some of the wealthiest people in Fortaleza and they don't mind getting richer, Wisdahl said.
At a conference Wisdahl attended, the head of the school union had a banner displayed that stated, 'Schools have to be beautiful, colorful, pleasant, a common space in which everyone feels good. If possible, better than a shopping mall.'
Historically, public schools were the best schools in Fortaleza, Wisdahl said. People who couldn't get into public schools went to private schools because you had to take a test to get into public school.
“In the 1970s when education started to open up and more people were educated, basically anyone with any money took their kids out of public schools and put them in private schools, and private schools have boomed since then,” said Wisdahl.
The more family members you enroll in the same private school, the more of a discount you get, which makes the business of private schools even more competitive, Wisdahl continued. Costs can vary, as well, depending on the year of schooling and the time of day students attend classes. It is cheaper to send your kids to the afternoon session because most parents choose to send their kids in the morning. Morning classes run from 7 a.m. until 1 p.m. and afternoon classes run from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.
“It's about $200 a month to send a kid to morning, third year high school classes,” said Wisdahl of one particular school in Fortaleza. “So, you can see that this school is not very expensive in the scheme of things.”
The most expensive year is the third (last) year of high school, which is when students take the test that determines if they can get into university.
Since there are no school buses, many of the students have to take the city bus, which can often be an hour-long ride just to attend private school.
“We're talking about a city bus that has about 40 people on it, standing up in the aisles,” said Wisdahl. “It's a small one. It's not a nice experience.”
Many of the kids, Wisdahl said, were embarrassed to tell her where they live, especially the ones from the slums.
“What they don't know is that most of their classmates are telling me the same thing, but they don't want to tell each other where they live,” she said.
Many kids will go to elementary schools in their own towns because it's cheaper, until it's time for high school. Then they go to the better, more expensive private schools.
“Some of them only come over for the third year in order to prepare for the test,” she said.
Wisdahl has been following two different groups of third year high school students, one from the morning session and one from the afternoon.
“These kids are preparing for this test that will be in November,” she explained. “They're desperate to get into public university. Many of them are studying harder than they've ever studied before.”
Wisdahl's goal is to write a book at the end of her research, so she can explain what life is like for these kids. She believes it is important to let the government know the reason why people are avoiding public schools, as well as informing them of the actual quality of private schools.
“There are 50 kids in every class,” she said. “Imagine you paid money to send your kid to private school and there are 50 kids in every class.”
Wisdahl said she called her dad after the first day sitting in on a class and said, “Oh, my God, they're so loud. My head hurts.”
Another classroom observation was that the kids didn't raise their hands to speak, which she said is a cultural thing and not considered bad behavior. They have five or six classes a day and they never leave the classroom. The teachers rotate from class to class teaching mostly math and science, which is two-thirds of the curriculum. Consequently, the kids become extremely restless.
“Imagine studying chemistry, physics, biology and math, and you're studying all those things at the same time, as well as variations of it,” she said.
Because of the teacher rotation system there are very few who teach full time. Wisdahl said they are not valued like they should be because they are viewed as a commodity. Most of them have to work at several schools at the same time in order to make a living. They also don't know their students' names because they don't have to. Only seeing one group of 50 kids once a week doesn't lend itself to learning individual names of students.
Students take classes five days a week, plus extra classes once a week, as well as Saturday morning classes. Many of them have to travel hundreds of miles to get to school.
“Imagine living in Mayo and sending your 14 year-old to Miami to live on her own in Miami and that's basically what it would be like,” said Wisdahl.
Many of the parents, some who are illiterate, are desperate for their kids to get an education so they can make a better life for themselves. Some parents even work at public schools so they can have money to send their kids to private schools. The kids, Wisdahl said, have high aspirations of becoming lawyers, doctors, architects, civil engineers, and a surprising number want to specialize in petroleum engineering. Aside from educational basics, students must also stay on top of current world events.
Wisdahl said the kids attending public schools have basically no opportunity for success because they don't have the higher education skills like the ones who attend private schools. Their parents, she said, are viewed as bad parents.
The downside to all this attention on education and all the time it takes up in the lives of the children, is that they don't participate in other activities like sports, the arts, or just hanging out with friends.
“They don't do activities,” said Wisdahl. “They only study and I think it's really sad.”