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Alan Santinele Martino, 17
Escola Estadual Professora Maria Pacheco Nobre
Praia Grande, Brazil

Family: The youngest of two sons of a lower middleclass father in film product sales and a stay-at-home mother. Alan's 22-year-old brother has cerebral palsy, and the family had to struggle to get him into a regular school

School: The public Escola Estadual Professora Maria Pacheco Nobre is a 20-minute drive from his home in Praia Grande, a 237,500- population coastal city in S?o Paulo state in southeast Brazil.

Courses: Mathematics (simultaneous instruction in all math disciplines, including algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus, occurs annually), physics, chemistry, biology, Portuguese, English, psychology, history, geography and drawing.

Alan's school day starts at 7 p.m. and ends at 11 p.m.

Focused on the Test

Clearly, 17-year-old Alan Santinele Martino has a lot on the ball. Community service isn't required of Brazilian secondary school students, but Alan volunteers twice a week with the elderly anyway. His service was one reason he was selected along with other students with good grades, fluent English and a record of volunteering for the U.S. Embassy's Youth Ambassadors Program, which brought him on a two-week visit to Washington and an Illinois school last year.

Like most students at his school in Praia Grande, a seaside city, he has a job. He teaches English at a private school to help support his family. He goes to school himself at a government school from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Brazil's secondary schools are so crowded, and half-day education for high school is so ingrained culturally, that schools run in shifts. Alan's school has family days on the weekend so that families can be together and take enrichment work, from sports to foreign languages. Alan counts himself lucky. His school is free of violence, drug and alcohol abuse.

"Only good students go to this school," he says. "It's the best school in my city." School choice is the norm in Brazil. Unlike the Illinois school he visited, however, choice of subject matter is not. Alan spends his class time with the same 40 students on the same subjects. Electives don't exist at his school, nor at most secondary schools, and there's no debate club, no chess club as he saw in America. Whether attending public, military or private school, ambitious students all have their eyes on one of the coveted slots at Brazil's most prestigious universities -- the free, public colleges or military universities. The ratio of applicants to slots is 80 to one at the public universities. Alan takes the "vestibular" -- university entrance exam -- in October after studying for it for two years. Military Education

The education regimen is similar for La?s Batista Oliveira Neiva, 16, who lives in Salvador, 3-million population, in northeast Brazil. She attends a military school, though her family isn't military. Many such schools closed after the military left power. The few remaining are renowned for their academics -- so respected that La?s' father, a furniture maker, tutored her to pass the entrance exam at age 10. She was one of the 60 who made it out of 2,000 applicants. "I had to study really hard since third grade," she says. Like Alan, she was selected a Youth Ambassador for her community service. On her U.S. visit to Nebraska, she didn't find the classes difficult but admired the school's resources and its community service requirement, which she believes would be good for Brazil. She also has a job -- at the tutoring center her father started after his success in preparing her for the military school entrance exam. La?s hopes to study engineering and international affairs and wants to attend one of the military universities. Also like Alan, she is focused on her favored university's vestibular next year.

Lais Batista Oliveira Neiva, 16
Colégio Militar de Salvador
Salvador, Brazil

Family: She's an only child. Her father and mother run a school.

School: Colégio Militar de Salvador is a 15-minute car ride from La?s' home.

Courses: Physics, math, chemistry, Portuguese, English, geometry, history, geography, biology, literature, military instruction.

University Prep

L?gia Carrelli Sa Silva's parents recently moved her to a 13-year-old, 1,937-student, kindergarten-and-up private school to better prepare the teen for getting into a university. "Everybody has iPods, and they all travel," says L?gia of her new school. Most also have computers at home. "I feel so different because I study. I do homework. Some people don't care about school." She would like to be a nutritionist. Her classes have 40 students, and her school day is from 7:10 a.m. to 12:10 or 12:55 p.m. L?gia, who will face the vestibular in 2007, already takes three review classes per week in physics, math and chemistry. Competition for the relatively few slots at the prestigious, free universities is fierce in this highstakes test. Says L?gia, with typical teenage hyperbole: "It's like 40 places for like a billion people."

L?gia Carrelli Sa Silva, 16
Colégio Albert Sabin
Sao Paulo, Brazil

Family: The younger of two children of university-educated parents. Her father is an economist, and her mother stays at home.

School: The private Colégio Albert Sabin is a 10-minute drive from her home.

Courses: Chemistry, physics, biology, math, Portuguese, English, geography, history, art and physical education.

Crowded, Competitive

In Brazil, packed secondary schools are putting pressure on universities to expand.

? Nearly 90% of children attend public schools. States and schools set curriculum. The 200-day school year runs from late January to December, with a break in the Southern Hemisphere's summer.

? Municipalities run elementary education, states run secondary and the federal government runs higher ed, though some large municipalities might run all three. Students average five 50- minute classes in secondary school.

? At the secondary level, according to a 2001 study, 7.5% of children have failed at least one grade, 16.5% have dropped out and 58.6% are at least one year older than expected, meaning they missed or failed at least one year of school, generally at the elementary level. Vocational schools get high marks.

? Brazil only now is reaching universal elementary education, which has led to a soaring number of secondary students and, in turn, to pressure for expansion at universities. "High school is not enough any longer. To compete, they have to get into a university now or a higher education institution," says Helo?sa L?ck, a consultant with the National Council for State Secretaries of Education.

? A major issue is how to foster more innovators. "Traditionally, our education was too much oriented to content and not enough to thinking and doing," L?ck says. "We developed a lot of knowledge but not how to apply that knowledge."

? Inverse to the United States, the most prestigious universities in Brazil are the free public schools. Competition to get in is intense. While U.S. colleges judge applicants on a combination of their GPA, test scores, extracurricular experiences and application essay, in Brazil, only the "vestibular" exam -- university entrance exam -- matters.