BRAZIL. The first of two special reports on the worldwide problem of children who drop out
Twelve-year-old Thiago Brito shares every Brazilian child's dream of one day parading to samba tunes at the world's grandest carnival. But for him, and hundreds of other children in Rio's hilltop slums, the dream has also become an incentive for a better future.
The samba school, in the Serrinha shanty on the northern fringes of Rio, is one of dozens of carnival-organising community groups leading a campaign to reduce Brazil's school drop-out rate.
"I was not allowed to take part in samba classes and costume making to get ready for carnival if I didn't go to school," said Thiago, who less than a year ago spent most of his days peddling drugs in the sewage-filled alleys around his precarious home.
"I left the streets and started going to classes and realised there was a better way to get ready for life," he added. He is now among 70 children, aged between six and 18, from Serrinha who daily, after school, crowd into a community hall to get ready for the carnival.
"I have learnt to read and write and play the tambourine. I will be able to wear a flamboyant feathered outfit when I turn out for the carnival this year," said Thiago.
With preparations for the February festival now underway, Rio's 26 samba schools have made it compulsory for children from the slums to attend school if they want to be in the big parade. The schools get a US$ 10,000 (Pounds 6,200) aid package from the Inter-American Development banks and are looking for further donations to widen their activities.
Each year, they organise more than 5,000 children for the biggest event in the Brazilian calendar. And they boast that they have succeeded in getting hundreds of school-aged children to stay in full-time education.
Their "back to school" motto has so far had more success than government projects. More than half of the million children who live in the poor districts of Rio left before finishing primary school and 20 per cent have never been to school.
Despondency with the underfunded state system and the need to join the labour market early to supplement their families' meagre income are the main causes.
The samba schools, usually the centre of community life, are run by local leaders. They have been better able to tap into local needs and problems. "We could not wait for the government to do something which it has not done for years. So we have started to make out own efforts to give our children a better start," said Arandi Cardoso dos Santos, 52, a veteran samba dancer and carnival celebrity who started the project in Serrinha.
Along with four voluntary arts and crafts teachers and one special needs teacher who helps the older children to catch up with reading and writing skills, they run welding, sewing, music, dancing, and story-reading classes after school.
Children have to bring a school report every three months and show that they are making an effort to improve their marks.
The samba school, which local children have christened "Empire of the Future", is a house in a shabbily-built brick and concrete building on the edge of the slums. The queue of children signing up for classes is already longer than expected. And it has become a model for the city's other community groups.