Online Extra: Embraer Helps to Educate Brazil

The aircraft manufacturer has created a unique high school where poor students have the opportunity to see their dreams take flight

By Geri Smith

Every three weeks, when JetBlue Airways (JBLU ) takes delivery of a new commercial aircraft from Brazilian manufacturer Embraer, the U.S. low-cost airline contributes $10,000 to a groundbreaking program aimed at allowing poor Brazilian teenagers a chance to believe that the sky is their only limit in life.

Four years ago, Embraer (ERJ ) created an innovative high school and invited poor students from public schools in the four communities surrounding its São José dos Campos complex to apply for admission. Applicants take an exam to measure basic language and mathematical skills. Each year, the top 200 students are admitted to a three-year high-school program that dramatically changes their lives.


  Plucked from mediocre public schools, they are given uniforms, three meals a day, free transportation, and nine hours of daily instruction in a $2.7 million, state-of-the-art campus that Embraer built on land next to one of its assembly factories. They have up to three hours of homework at night, but no one complains. In fact, last year, there were 5,400 applicants for just 200 10th-grade slots—a 3.7% admittance rate. The school is ranked among the top 15 high schools—public and private—in Brazil.

"We're demanding, and the workload for the students is unbelievable, but students who never had the opportunity to study in a good school value this experience, and their families do, too," says school director Maria Regina Paz.

The hard work pays off: 95% of the nearly 400 students who have graduated so far have gone on to college. Many won full scholarships to study at private universities. Others receive monthly stipends from Embraer totaling as much as $10,000 over five years to pay for living and school expenses while studying at free public universities. These are students who, had they ever graduated from high school, most likely wouldn't have made it to college. "In Brazil, education is just about the only way underprivileged kids can rise in society, and for these kids this is their one best shot," says Paz.


  Many companies in Brazil engage in corporate philanthropy, but few have taken as bold a step as Embraer has to tackle one of the country's most serious problems: its mediocre public schools. Brazil boasts Latin America's largest economy, but half of its people live below the poverty line and the country has the most unequal distribution of wealth in the world, next to sub-Saharan Africa.

And the debt-strapped government has limited resources to improve schools, where 60 million students, one-third of the country's population, are enrolled. Today, there are 9 million high school students; that number will double by 2015 (see, 6/21/06, "For Brazil's Poor, A Digital Deliverance").

The students at Embraer's Juarez Wanderley school, which is named after the late engineer who used to head the aircraft manufacturer, offer a microcosm of Brazil's complex social fabric. Their average family income is just $385 a month. Many come from very troubled backgrounds, including some whose fathers were in prison or mothers worked as prostitutes. One young man refused to join his fellow students in the cafeteria because he had never eaten using a knife and fork; after a week of discreet lessons given by a teacher's aide in her office, he finally felt confident enough to eat in public.


  Paz, the school director, recalls one student, Helena, who lived as a street-child for several years until an aunt took her in. She thought her only chance to get ahead would be by somehow smuggling herself to the U.S. to find work as a nanny. But she was intelligent enough to win admission to the Embraer school. She thrived there and decided she wanted to become a judge. She's now studying law at one of Brazil's top universities.

When I visited the school in May, students put on an impressive, 20-minute presentation on the school's ambitious sustainable development program, which includes the cultivation of organic crops on a campus plot, reforestation of blighted land, and recycling. The students often visit other schools and communities to help them develop their own conservation programs. "Our hope is that, 15 years from now these young people will be leaders in Brazilian technology, politics, and society," says Paz.

Clearly, Embraer's one school isn't the solution to the country's problems, but it is showing that quality education can be achieved, especially if the private sector steps up to assume part of the burden. In August, Embraer's Education and Research Institute is launching a new school-within-a-school for the 40% of the Juarez Wanderley students who say they are interested in studying engineering in college.


  The students will take extra classes in mathematics and physics in laboratories to be equipped with 10 imported lab stations costing $16,000 apiece. Embraer is working with engineers from the Brazilian Navy to develop less expensive, locally made physics lab stations so that the engineering education module can be replicated at private schools around the country with the help of private company sponsorships.

"Embraer has always been closely associated with technology and education, and so this is one way that we as a company can be socially responsible," says Luiz Sergio Cardoso de Oliveira, who directs Embraer's social development programs.

JetBlue founder David Neeleman, who was born in Brazil when his father worked there as a foreign correspondent, visited São José dos Campos several times before signing a $3 billion order for 101 of Embraer's 100-seat passenger jets. He was so impressed by his visit to the Juarez Wanderley school that he volunteered to donate $10,000 for every plane Embraer delivers to JetBlue. The donations, which will exceed $1 million by the time the airline's 101st jet is delivered in 2010, help pay for the college scholarships.


  Embraer also has received contributions from Unibanco, a major Brazilian bank that is funding 40 college scholarships. And Cardoso is about to offer Embraer's 17,086 employees a credit card that will contribute 1% of the value of all purchases to the Education and Research Institute, to ensure a steady flow of additional cash to the company's philanthropic efforts.

That's good news for Karen Santana, 18, who graduated from the Juarez Wanderley school last year and is studying mechanical engineering with a focus on aeronautics at the University of Campinas, one of Brazil's leading universities. Her living expenses are covered by a $180 monthly Embraer scholarship.

The daughter of an auto mechanic, she never dreamed she could attend college. "I wish every student in Brazil could have the high school education I had," she says. "It wasn't just the book learning that was good—I evolved culturally, socially, and intellectually, as a citizen." She knows it's a huge investment, but she hopes that other Brazilian companies will follow in Embraer's footsteps.

Smith is BusinessWeek's Mexico bureau chief

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.