School time

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It’s that time of year. I saw this year’s first flashing school zone light last Friday. For those of us living in the relative affluence of the US, the end of summer and the start of school is axiomatic; going back to school is what children do every fall. We understand that education is one of the foundation stones of society, so we place great importance on the rituals that signal the start of the school year — shopping for school supplies, back-to school parties, and the first visit to see the new classroom and meet the new teacher.
Last summer in a Campinas favela, I asked the universal question of a boy and his younger sister: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Daniel, perhaps 11, answered immediately, “Advogado” — an attorney. The little girl, whose name I don’t remember, shyly looked down, scuffed the dirt path with the toe of her shoe and then answered, “Professora” — a teacher. But then I asked the telling question: “Do you like school?” The boy answered, “I’ve never been to school, but Momma says she thinks I can go next year.”
The dreams of these children are as vivid to them as the dreams of any child in affluent America. But for these two, the promise of the future will never be more than a dream, destined to be discarded by the time they reach adolescence … trampled by the reality of survival in the slums.
For 123 million children worldwide, there will be no right of passage to a new grade. In fact, there will be no school at all, because these children will never receive even a rudimentary education. And, as functional illiterates, they will never realize the opportunities that education provides; they will never break the multi-generational cycle of poverty and despair.
It is not just a matter of providing schools, although that is critically important. Of the 123 million children, almost 50 million of them actually have access to at least elementary education. Tragically, as was the case with Daniel and his sister, these millions of children live in situations where education is not valued. In reality, the task of changing lives for the children is dependent upon helping parents grasp the importance of school.
In a slum just a few miles from Daniel’s home, Hope Unlimited for Children has opened a preschool for 530 children. There the parents see the immediate impact of having their children in school; happier, healthier (thanks to provided nutritional meals and medical care), better-behaved kids. As the kids go to school each day, both children and parents learn the habit of education. When time for elementary school rolls around, the parents will understand their responsibility: make the effort; invest in their children; get them to the classroom.
Even so, there’s no guarantee. Providing an education does not automatically mean that a child will break the cycle. But many of them will. And one thing is certain, unless we open the door to education for impoverished children, the door to the future will remain closed.

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