U.S. teachers study education in Venezuela

A delegation of 16 teachers, 12 of them from Maine, returned April 24 from Venezuela where they got a firsthand look at educational changes in a nation where 80 percent of the people are poor and social revolution is in the air.

The group included university and high school teachers, social workers, a psychologist and a first grade teacher. Intrigued by a nationwide literacy campaign reaching over 1.4 million people, the participants themselves organized the visit.

Sister Lourdes said of her experience directing a Caracas pre-school in a hillside neighborhood: “The process is revolutionary and transformative. ... There is a huge awakening among the Venezuelan people.”

“[Venezuela President Hugo] Chavez is crazy, but it’s healthy crazy,” she continued. “We are in a time of transition.” Pre-schools, called “Simoncitos,” after liberator Simon Bolivar, now serve 1.38 million children.

Omar Calzadilla, head of adult education in Venezuela, told the group, “Education prepares people for new citizenship.” Literacy is more than teaching reading. “In 2003, all the problems that produce illiteracy started to be addressed: health problems, visual problems, undocumented identity problems, problems of people without food.”

The group visited the Fabricio Ojeda complex in Caracas, which serves as a center for several cooperative factories, an elaborate health center, a school for handicapped individuals, organic gardens, a low-cost food outlet and two Bolivarian schools under construction.

Such schools now add up to 3,780, with a million children in attendance. Teacher Honorio Dam said, “The communities set forth the curriculum and establish the values and ideas.” The aim apparently is to implement ideals of citizen participation, democracy and inclusion.

According to Venezuela’s 1999 Constitution, a copy of which people often carry, Article 103 holds that “every person has the right to a full, high-quality, ongoing education under conditions and circumstances of equality.” The government has built 700 new elementary schools, 80 technical schools, and has refurbished 8,750 of the nation’s 20,000 older schools. It devotes 20 percent of its budget to education. The educational share of Venezuela’s GDP has risen from 2.8 percent to 7 percent.

The U.S. visitors interviewed students from Mission Ribas, a project involving 800,000 students working at the high school level. Similar numbers are studying to reach the sixth grade. College students participating in the huge Mission Sucre program told the U.S. teachers that they devise their own curricula, utilize “project-centered” learning, and try to serve community needs. “University villages” are anticipated, aimed at making continuing education universally available.

In Barquisimeto, the delegation came across young adults involved with the Vuelvan Cara (“About face”) project. Building a cooperative refrigeration enterprise, they presented material on “cooperativism,” the meaning of community, and differences between capitalism and socialism.

Reportedly 80,000 cooperatives are functioning now in Venezuela with technical and financial help from the government. Students at all levels study the theory and practice of cooperatives. At a women’s agricultural cooperative, spokesperson Gaudi Garcia explained, “A cooperative is a whole way of life: living together and sharing moral and social values.”

One high point for the present writer, who helped organize the delegation, was a visit to a three-year-old Bolivarian high school located in the Andean foothills. It occupied an abandoned coffee-processing shed. Previously, schooling for the region’s children had ended at the sixth grade.

Teacher Irlanda Espinoza said, “We have learned that we are a part of history and have culture and traditions that are worth sharing. The kids have a lot of knowledge and only recently they’ve discovered that they have the power of speaking.”

She and some of the 25 or so students are working on an agricultural and ecological tourism project. A student pregnancy during the school’s first year prompted them to put human sexuality into the curriculum. With community approval, they surveyed the sexual histories of students’ family members, inquiring even about sexually transmitted diseases.

Asked how North Americans could help the school, an eighth-grader responded: “Tell the people in the U.S. what is happening here. Support one another amongst yourselves so you can go forward. Take the beautiful dream you’ve found here home. Unite yourselves — that’s what we want.”

According to professor Rebecca Rogers from St. Louis, “The revolution is being constructed by the people of the Global South. [They] were the teachers of us North Americans.”