Like many working class youth in Brazil, Jessica Santiago de Souza studies for her high school diploma at night and works during the day to bring home more money for her family.
Her public school, Salvador Allende, sits on the impoverished outskirts of Sao Paulo’s East Zone and is covered in graffiti. Drug addicts sit on a patch of grass opposite.
At 20, Jessica says she is the oldest in her class. She originally dropped out of school in her mid-teens due to “family problems”.
She is determined to go to university and eventually get a better job that will allow her to support her father, she says. That is why she was so distraught when she heard that her school was closing.
“There are only two other high schools in this area, and I’m worried that the classes will be too full,” she says.
So, Jessica began to organise her fellow students via social media. They agreed to occupy the school in protest against the closure.
Their occupation began with 15 students and supporters at 3am on November 12. That number has grown since then to around 50 demonstrators, including students, former students, supporters, and even teachers.
Jessica is one of the hundreds of thousands of students in Sao Paulo who have been affected by school closures that are part of a local government’s ‘reorganisation’ programme, purportedly aimed at making the school system more efficient.
In an attempt to reverse the proposed closures and force dialogue with the authorities, students have begun occupying schools across the city.
Altogether, if the government measures go ahead as planned, 94 public schools will close and some 311,000 students – around 10 percent of the total state school system – most of whom are lower to middle income, will have to change schools. Eighty-three thousand teachers will also be relocated.
Al Jazeera visited three of the occupations and found the students organised in horizontal leadership models, with elected press spokespeople.
To date, 74 of the 94 schools been occupied.
And it isn’t just the closures that the students are drawing attention to. They also want to register their dissatisfaction with the state of Brazil’s public education system and have listed a range of problems, including classrooms packed well beyond capacity, a lack of basic items like tables and chairs, a shortage of computers, absent teachers and inadequate security.
“The conditions at our schools are precarious enough and with these closures, they will only get more
precarious,” says 18-year-old Eudes Cassio da Silva Oliveira at the Fernao Dias school, the first to be occupied.
State officials say that the closures are a necessary “reorganisation” that will improve the public school system.
The schools currently host different teaching segments – high school and middle school, for example – in the same building, while the reorganisation will see them catering exclusively to one segment.
Authorities say their new approach has been proven to improve the quality of teaching as it leads to a better use of equipment and resources, and it facilitates lesson planning for teachers.
They also say that the reorganisation will make more efficient use of space, as many of the schools are currently operating well under capacity; since 2000, the number of students enrolled in the Sao Paulo state school system has fallen from 5.5 million to 3.8 million, due to falling population growth as well as migration to the private system.
The buildings will remain in the hands of the state government and be reopened as technical colleges or nurseries, authorities say.
Officials add that they will guarantee that students will not be relocated any further than 1.5km from their current school, and that, at the high school level, there will be no more than 40 students to a class.
“All students, parents, communities, and teachers can rest assured that they will be served by the state network,” said Sao Paulo regional director of education Sandoval Cavalcanti, by phone.
Opponents, however, say that the reorganisation will be a huge disruption to the students’ lives and that none of the involved parties – students, parents or teachers – were consulted.
Analysts say the state government is using the reorganisation to cut costs, and teacher unions allege that the studies undertaken to minimise disruption are superficial, saying that even relocations as close as 1.5km away could double a student’s commute time to school.
Overfilled classrooms were one of the main reasons why Sao Paulo teachers took part in a three-month strike earlier this year, and even with falling attendance rates and capacity limits, the unions say it is common to have 50 students in a classroom; numbers, they add, which will inevitably rise if more schools are closed.
Support networks – such as parents or neighbours who take their children to school, students who travel to school in groups or who care for parents or younger siblings – would be broken up as locations and hours change.
The unions say that the authorities are not taking into account the fact that many of those affected may have
complex family, work and school arrangements and need stability for a healthy learning environment.
“These changes will lead to an immense estrangement that will damage the students’ learning,” said Joao Carlos Novaes Luz, a director of the Official Education Teachers Union of the State of Sao Paulo.
Education is the challenge
In recent years, the quality of public high school education has declined in Sao Paulo state.
Despite Brazil’s rise as an economic power since the early 2000s, it remains one of the world’s most unequal countries and nowhere is the inequality more apparent than in the education system.
Brazil’s highly sought-after public universities are rarely attended by students from public schools. The majority of students who attend them are from wealthy families and were privately educated.
The closures could further exacerbate these inequalities, say analysts, who suggest that more students will drop out of school if the measures go forth, restricting students to low-level jobs in the future and making them more vulnerable to gangs and crime.
Brazil has the highest number of murders in the world, with around 10,500 children killed in 2013.
It also has the world’s fourth-largest prison population – having grown by 74 percent between 2005 and 2012. The majority of inmates are young, poor and uneducated.
“Bad education leads to social exclusion,” explains Ariel Castro, a lawyer specialising in human rights who oversaw many of the occupations and expressed concern that at the same time Sao Paulo is proposing to close schools, Brazil is lowering its age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16.
At the Joao Kopke School in a dilapidated part of Sao Paulo’s city centre nicknamed “crackland”, addicts sit on the floor openly smoking crack and cocaine just metres from the school while occupying students sit behind a locked iron fence.
Diego Anjos dos Santos, 21, in his last year of high school, said that they will continue the occupations until the “reorganisation” plans are cancelled entirely.
“Education is our greatest weapon,” he says. “The more informed people are, the harder it is to manipulate them.”