Before Kátia Schweickardt was tapped to be the Education Secretary of a sprawling city in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, she was serving as the head of Environmental Policy. Which makes sense, since for her, those two subjects, education and the environment, are inextricably linked.
While Schweickardt has a Ph.D. in Anthropology and Sociology and is a university professor, she had no formal academic background in education when she was invited in 2015 to head up education in Manaus, the third-largest municipal public education system in Brazil behind Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.
Undaunted, Schweickardt—an autodidact, a polymath, and a force of nature—read everything she could get her hands on about teaching and learning. The 52-year-old mother of two diagnosed the problems, reordered priorities, reorganized the department, all while gaining the trust and respect of those around her.
So far, it seems to be working.
Manaus, a city on the Amazon River surrounded on all sides by the rainforest, was ranked 20th in education out of Brazil’s 27 states when she took over. Now, the city ranks ninth.
And when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Schweickardt was relentless in her drive to do everything possible to make sure Manaus didn’t lose its hard-fought gains. The city of 2.2 million, home to 245,000 students, 500 schools, and 2,0000 teachers, became the first capital city in Brazil to establish a remote learning system.
The Lemann Foundation sat down with Schweickardt to find out more about her philosophy, her experience as a Visiting Lemann Fellow at Columbia’s Teachers College, and her plan to keep kids learning during the pandemic.
Q. You’re from Rio but you’ve lived in Manaus for the past 28 years. What’s it like living in a city in the middle of the world's largest rainforest?
A. We don’t have any connection with the rest of the country by road. You only can arrive here by plane or by boat. We’re the biggest city with this configuration. It’s our power and our principle to be people living in a big city in the middle of a forest without roads. We are a people of the forest.
Q. Is that a source of pride for the people of Manaus?
A. It’s a recent concept here. It’s still new. We need our children to develop a kind of critical spirit so they understand we live a different reality, but that doesn’t mean they are less important than Paulistanos or Cariocas or American people. Now Manaus is beginning to perceive that we are the most important city of the forest of the Amazon. We are different and our difference is our power.
Q. How does that belief guide your work in education?
A. I’m not saying we should be closed off to the rest of the country and the world in the way we live. But we must work in practical ways to remove the mentality in our children that they are less than anyone else. This is not to deny that we need to establish specific goals for what children need to learn and by when. We need to be thinking about, ‘Where do we want to arrive this year? What are our concrete goals for 2022?’ We need to have goals, but they must take into account our unique cultural specificities and our cultural reality.
Q. How does your belief in the uniqueness of the people of Manaus tie into your approach to development?
A. There is no question that we need to improve and enhance our basic education. It’s very important. But the end goal is not to be the same as Paulistanos or Cariocas. We need to develop in different ways to survive. We can't think the only way to develop as a city is to be industrial and to be urban and to deny the forest. We need to consider other resources and the finitude of the rainforest’s resources. So that means we need to change our minds to recognize that having this big forest is so important and we must therefore develop in a sustainable way. But we need research; we need to enhance our universities and our basic education system.
Q. You have an unusual background as an environmental expert that ended up in education. How are education and the environment linked?
A. Education needs to support the next generation to be more prepared to handle a new reality. Because using the planet’s resources as the only path to development is a road to nowhere. We can’t survive without the forest.
Q. Given the history of Manaus, this would be a very different path forward from the past?
A. Manaus was built from the rubber boom at the end of the 1800s. It became the richest city in South America and was nicknamed the “Paris of the Tropics.” Then the bottom fell out of the rubber economy and the city nearly collapsed. In the 1960s and ’70s, the military government redeveloped it as an industrial city with a free trade zone and it’s now one of the most populous cities in Brazil.
Q. It seems like there is always talk of building a major road that links Manaus to the rest of the country.
A. Some people believe having a road is the most important thing for our economy. I believe we don't need a road. Instead, what we need is to learn how to value our forest richness because this is our power and everything else stems from this.
Q. Do you think there is a way to marry education and development with the special way of life in the Amazon?
A. Our urban society is very individualistic. I think in many ways the pandemic has made us rethink whether this kind of life is the best way to survive. Maybe we, here, can teach other people to live better, how to use forest medicine, how to take care of each other in a different type of family system. Indigenous people take care of each other as a collective system, which is very different.
Q. One of your priorities as Education Secretary has been getting families more involved in education.
A. We were pleased to have moved from 20th to 9th place in education but we needed to be better. And to be better, we have to involve families more because schools are doing what they can do, but they need more partners. And families need to understand the learning process and to trust that despite the fact they may be poor, they can help their children at home, too.
Q. The work you were doing as a Visiting Lemann Fellow at Columbia Teachers College was about family engagement in education. Can you tell us about that?
A. The Lemann Foundation worked with us as a partner to improve education technologies. They invited me to apply as a Visiting Scholar. We proposed that my studies would be about involving families in education. The idea was for me to bring my reflections to my studies and then come home and share them with my staff so we could work together as a collective to improve policies.
Q. The pandemic interrupted your studies.
A. Yes, but the pandemic also proved to us that we were correct. Children are now learning at home and families must be involved to help their children learn.
Q. How were you able to make such a dramatic difference in educational performance in such a short time? It’s especially remarkable given your doctorate is in Sociology and Anthropology and not education.
A. When I started in 2015, it was not easy. This is a big system. I read everything, talked to everybody, and learned everything I could. These past six years have been like an on-the-job Ph.D.
Q. What was it like in those early days?
A. We had to work very hard at the beginning because there was a lot of resistance. A lot of people fought with me. People came to me to complain or to suggest it was all about providing food to children, improving infrastructure, and providing security. Nobody was worried about education and how children learn and how they can learn better…Nobody. Fathers, mothers, teachers, politicians, administrators, nobody.
Q. How did you respond to that?
My message was that school is very important to support poor children in many different ways. But the single most important thing we do is to educate. My point was that yes, we have many problems with our infrastructure, but we can’t wait to fix everything. Before we started teaching children to learn.
Q. What were your first steps as Education Secretary?
A. We made a diagnosis of where we were and our most urgent problems. From these results, we discussed what was standing in the way of children learning well and we worked on teaching our teachers how to teach our children. We organized ourselves to address those problems with a new management structure and we set very specific goals and assigned timings to them. We put the focus on basic education problems—like how to learn Portuguese and math, at a minimum.
Q. Why is it that many people didn’t see school as a place where learning came first?
A. Our former teaching training in pedagogy at universities in Brazil didn’t worry about these things. The courses were more philosophical courses designed to help teachers think about many of the major things needed to change society. So this was a new mindset we brought. We needed to invest time to prove to teachers that if you put your focus on teaching children and setting learning goals, we can influence society and the situation will get better.
Q. How were you able to convince everybody to get on board?
A. The most important thing to convince everyone is results. Proof. And as the children started learning and doing better, it became real and the success built upon itself.
On top of that, our children’s success is good for us as educators. Because society respects us more when we are proud of the job we are doing. School teachers in Brazil have been undervalued. But we will get more respect from society not because of the quality of food we give to children at school but from what we teach them and how they learn.
Q. You jumped into action earlier than most districts when COVID first closed the schools?
A. We were the first state capital in Brazil that started a remote education plan. We don’t have these conditions where everyone has the Internet and computers at home. We developed a project we called “Classrooms at Home” and we got our teachers materials, and we recorded classes and activities and put them up on digital platforms and on TV for poor people who don’t have digital access. We were the first capital city to do this. São Paulo copied us. I’m proud of that (laughing).
We are also supporting our teachers so they can be more in touch with families. We are now in contact with around 145,000 children with Classroom at Home and we have managed to engage 95 percent of teachers in doing this.
Q. What’s next?
We are in the midst of developing a big campaign called “No One Out.” We are trying to find and support the students that aren’t with us because parents lost their jobs or houses because of the crisis. We are collecting donations of computers and tablets and TVs so even children who don't have TVs can participate.
Q. Given your district doesn’t have a lot of resources compared to many others, it seems remarkable you were such early movers during the crisis. Why and how did that happen?
A. We had made such big gains going from 20th to 9th place and I knew if we stopped we would go backward. I couldn’t allow us to lose all the gains we had fought so hard for.
We weren’t getting guidance from the federal government and many teachers thought it wasn’t the right time to act and that we should wait for the pandemic to be over. There was also a belief among many pedagogical specialists that children couldn’t learn remotely and that we should wait. But I thought, ‘We can’t choose between doing or not doing.’ We needed to do something.
Once the decision was made, we were able to act quickly because we had constructed this new management system and it is internalized so we had the processes in place to put together an actionable plan.
Q. How was COVID different for Manaus than other cities?
There was a campaign in the country called “Stay Home.” When you’re middle class or upper class and your house is nice and you live comfortably and you have good food and a good salary, that’s fine.
But when you’re poor and you need to work today to eat today, and if you don’t work you don’t eat, then how can it be better at home in this situation? We needed to talk to our students and be in touch with their families and we could use our classes to do this. We believe that public school to poor people is the most important arm of the state to touch them with.
Q. Your leadership has really been exemplary. Can you offer any leadership advice?
A. First, inspire people. Second, Involve yourself with every process.
Our work is difficult. You need to have a lot of energy and to be a funny person even though you have a lot of fighting to do to make changes and to get things done. Because we are people of the tropics, we need hugs and kisses every day.
Also, you must believe in yourself and be an example for everyone around you. People around me need to think: ‘She knows what she’s saying and she represents me and she believes in me.’