The scorching, arid northeastern state of Ceará, Brazil has long been known for growing cashews and coconuts. Now, it’s defied expectations by cultivating one of the world’s best public elementary school systems, despite high rates of poverty. How Sobral transformed its public school system and attained near-universal literacy offers lessons for communities everywhere.
With 85 elementary schools and almost 34,000 students, Sobral now dominates national assessments in reading and math—outscoring even affluent students in Saõ Paulo, Brazil’s financial center. In 2000, only 48% of Sobral’s second-graders were reading at grade level. By 2004, that figure had almost doubled to 92%, with an average of 95% in the years since (until 2020 pandemic school closures). Since 2014, the average Sobral fifth grader has scored not just “proficient” but “advanced” on Brazil’s national proficiency test (National Basic Education Assessment System, or SAEB).
Sobral’s story is one of system-wide transformation. It’s a tale of a community that, over many years, changed every aspect of its primary education system. It features a grand vision and bold political leadership. It speaks to the power of aligned instructional systems, deep investments in educators, and a culture of love, support, and high expectations. It’s a multi-faceted story that demonstrates the possibility of achieving near-universal literacy, even in resource-constrained environments.
the story of sobral: documentary + ADDITIONAL VIDEOS
Building Tomorrows: The Story of Sobral is a 35-minute documentary film that captures the human stories behind Sobral’s success and this report. Also available below are a condensed version of the film as well as two other topic-specific versions that focus on Sobral’s support of their teachers and the culture within Sobral that made their story possible. All videos are in Portuguese with English subtitles.