Created in the early years of Brazil as a republic, the grupos escolares—the name given to the consolidations of separate elementary schools—occupied mansions or monumental edifices, frequently surrounded by large gardens. The classrooms were huge, the windows high and wide, and the courtyards immense. Corresponding to the former primary schools that are now known as the first five grades of ensino fundamental that combines the former primary school with what used to be ginásio, the grupos escolares were the symbol of quality public education. Their architecture and mode of operation expressed the ideals of the men who had brought down the monarchy and wanted Brazil to be a modern country. “The grupos escolares were the materialization of the republican plan for education,” says Maria Aparecida de Menezes Borrego, a historian at the Paulista Museum of the University of São Paulo (USP). They were so important, she notes, that “the public works department had a special section devoted to building schools, headed by Ramos de Azevedo and other big names in the architecture of the time.
Borrego has organized an exhibit about the grupos escolares at the Convenção de Itú Republican Museum, an extension of the Paulista Museum, based on the collection of 4,884 photographs compiled by Washington Luis, who was president of Brazil from 1926 to 1930. The first part of the exhibit, which opened in November 2014, emphasized the architecture of schools that Washington Luis had visited or inaugurated when he was, variously, city councilman, state deputy, mayor, or governor of São Paulo. The second part will open in April 2015. It will display textbooks, student enrollment records, and report cards from the early years of the 20th century.
The São Paulo republicans – Prudente de Morais, Bernardino de Campos, Jorge Tibiriçá, Cesário Motta, Caetano de Campos, Rangel Pestana, and others—were committed to overhauling the education system “as an eminently republican project,” says Rosa de Fátima Souza, from the São Paulo State University (Unesp) in Araraquara. She has spent more than 20 years studying the formation of the grupos escolares as well as the ginásios, which correspond to today’s sixth to ninth grades, created as a reflection of the Vargas Era policy to expand the capacity of the public school system. “Expansion of ginásios occurred more rapidly in São Paulo. Even so, not all the municipalities had them,” she comments. As of 1930, there were only three ginásios in the state—in the cities of São Paulo, Campinas, and Ribeirão Preto. In a book published by Editora Unesp in 2014, O ginásio da morada do sol (The Ginásio in the House of the Sun), Souza and her colleagues Vera Valdemarin and Maria Cristina Zancul tell the story of the first ginásio in Araraquara, established in 1934 by the incorporation of a private school and now known as the Escola Estadual Bento de Abreu.
First, the teachers
The grupos escolares resulted from the 1893 reform of the schools that began with the creation of teacher training courses. “The São Paulo republicans believed that training teachers was the key to developing public education as “education for the people,” considered essential to the strengthening of the new regime and the shaping of a republican citizenry,” Souza observes. It soon became evident, however, that maintaining what were called “normal schools” for teachers was expensive. She recalls that during the First Republic (1889-1930), “only 11 official normal schools were created and maintained by the state; these were in important cities like Campinas, Casa Branca, Itapetininga, São Carlos, Botucatu and São Paulo.” The first one was the Caetano de Campos Normal School, which occupied a building on Praça da República in downtown São Paulo, and served as a standard of excellence for teachers all over the state.
To solve the teacher shortage, in 1895 the government adopted a palliative strategy: they instituted the “complementary curriculum,” which initially lasted four years and followed the primary level. The complementary courses rather than the second stage of the primary course became a teacher training ground,” Souza says. “As a result of that action, two modes of teacher training were established in the state of São Paulo: the normalistas, educated at the normal schools, and the complementaristas, educated in the complementary schools. Obviously, the graduates of normal schools had gone through a longer and more complicated period of training, while the complementaristas had a shorter period of instruction.”
The grupos escolares were created by bringing together from four to ten smaller units that had been separate schools. In a second stage, anticipating the planned innovations, these so-called “united schools” applied the principles that would govern education during the early decades of the Republic, such as classification of students by age, placing several classrooms in a single building, assigning one teacher for each grade, and separating boys and girls.
“The schools established at the beginning of the Republic represented regenerative education for a population that was still largely illiterate,” Borrego says. The new educational strategies brought more children into the schools—the number of registered students in the state jumped from 31,000 in 1900 to 338,000 in 1929. In an article in Revista de Educação Pública (Public Education Review), Souza wrote that the state government and the agencies associated with education in São Paulo sought to publicize these achievements through articles in newspapers, official reports, pompous ceremonies held to inaugurate new schools, festivals, and lectures. Despite these efforts, in 1940, 70% of Brazil’s population, 41 million at the time, was still illiterate.
The public schools remained as symbols of quality education for decades. But they were a fragile symbol, in the opinion of Rosa Souza. “I am particularly opposed to using the history of education to reiterate nostalgic and idealized views of a glorious past in which the public schools were of good quality and functioned marvelously well,” she says. In examining school archives and reading reports by teachers, directors, and inspectors of São Paulo schools throughout the 20th century, she has found stories of “innumerable difficulties faced daily, whether with respect to the conditions of the infrastructure and educational materials, or concerning working conditions, salaries, and student achievement.”
According to Souza, in 1960, more than 40% of Brazil’s children were kept from attending school because of a shortage of capacity. Furthermore, promotion rates were low: almost half the children failed first grade. “Keeping their children in school was very difficult for many families, especially those in rural areas,” Souza observes. In fact, school reform favored the cities and neglected the countryside, although most of the population of the state of São Paulo still lived in rural areas, as Souza and Virginia Ávila, of the University of Pernambuco, wrote in an article in the journal História da Educação (History of Education). Rural schools continued to suffer from a teacher shortage and precarious facilities. Moreover, too many students had to quit school to work in the fields.
Anyone who had some money and didn’t want to have their children attend classes with the public school students sent them to private schools, usually religious. The Colégio Nossa Senhora do Patrocínio de Itu accepted only girls. One of them, Helena de Oliveira Machado, attended that school in the decade of 1910; her notebooks and drawings, preserved by a granddaughter, were displayed at the Studies Center near the Republican Museum, complementing the exhibit on the architecture of the grupos escolares.
The public school system began to decline in prestige under a succession of educational reforms that meant the end of Latin classes and, eventually, instruction in French as well. In the 1970s both the grupos escolares and the ginásios were converted to state elementary schools, and the teachers suffered a drastic wage squeeze that resulted in strikes like the one in 1979. “As in the past, there are challenges to be met both in the political realm and in the exercise of the profession,” says Souza. “The republicans of the early 20th century left us a lesson, i.e., we must defend the public schools and teacher training, and support government initiatives toward modernizing and disseminating education.”
The history of the rural primary school in the State of São Paulo (1931-1968): Circulation of foreign references, state initiatives, and school culture (No 12/08203-5); Grant mechanism: Regular Line of Research Project Award; Principal Investigator: Rosa de Fátima Souza (Unesp); Investment: R$69,621.09 (FAPESP).
ÁVILA, V. P. S. e SOUZA, R. F. As disputas em torno do ensino primário rural (São Paulo, 1931-1947). História da Educação. V. 18, No. 43, pp. 13-32. 2014.
SOUZA, R. F. O bandeirismo paulista no ensino e a modernização da escola primária no Brasil. Revista de Educação Pública. V. 20, No. 42, pp. 123-43. 2011.