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Slum children join elite classes

BRAZIL. Exodus of middle-class as top school chooses to open its doors to residents of shanty towns. Gabriella Gamini reports

Jose Berardinelli's home is a luxury flat in a plush district of Rio de Janeiro; Daniel Paulo de Souza shares a corrugated iron shack in a slum with his mother and four brothers and sisters. But the boys' paths have now crossed in an unexpected place: the playground of a private school.

Stella Maris educational centre, a private primary and secondary school is run by Catholic nuns. The friendship, of Jose, 12, and Daniel, 13, is the result of an ambitious attempt by the school to tackle the social apartheid that divides rich from poor in Rio.

The school, situated between Jose's home in Vidigal, one of Rio's largest shanty towns, and Daniel's, in the well-to-do seaside district of Barra da Tijuca, was one of the first to open its doors to slum children.

This year it opened half of its 500 classroom places to non-paying children from Vidigal, perched on a steep hill that overlooks its playground. Sister Angelica, the headmistress, says: "We want to offer the shanty-town children the same education as middle-class families."

But the scheme has not proved popular with middle-class parents: more than 70 per cent decided to pull their children out because of the programme. The remaider stayed and approved of use of their fees to subsidise the education of the poor. "It's tough," says Sister Angelica, "but we have made a moral choice".

"We are now looking for funding from business sponsors. We are also renting out our science labs to the local university. Some of the slum parents have also offered to pay a nominal sum."

The Stella Maris initiative has spurred a number of the city's private schools to act to provide education that the Government seems unable to. They are giving places to slum families, sending pupils and teachers into the shanties and have started running exchange programmes.

The American School, where some of the richest Brazilian families send their children, has started sending out pupils to do voluntary work in the neighbouring Rocinha slum.

Mariana Fraga, 14, daughter of the president of Brazil's Central Bank, is among those giving English lessons to Rocinha's teenagers.

The Corcovado German School, also popular with middle-class families, sends 12 to 17-year-olds into the nearby Dona Marta shanty, to help out in a cr che.

Corcovado pupil Luana Colombo, 14, said: "Before I went into Dona Marta I had the impression that it was full of drug-traffickers. I realise now that it is full of children who have a right to an education like all of us."

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