Friday, September 14, 2007

Bolivarian Education

Honorio Dam, on left, and Rafael, a teacher of agriculture, at the office of the “maestros rurales.” The slogan on their office wall says: “Constructores de sueños, profesionales de la esperanza” ---- “Builders of dreams, professionals of hope.”

When I first met Honorio Dam, the director of rural teachers in the rugged, mountainous region that surrounds Sanare, he took me to a unique graduation ceremony. The first class of adults, more than 200 people, had just finished Mission Ribas, a Bolivarian initiative designed for adults who wanted to complete their high school education. It was a festive occasion as relatives, teachers, and the mayor celebrated with the most jubilant group of graduates I have ever seen.

In January of 2007, when I accompanied a group from Dickinson College in Pennylvania on a visit to Sanare, Honorio introduced the North American students to area residents who were enrolled in Mission Sucre, an education program for adults who are studying at the university level. Afterward, Honorio said to me, “You know, nearly all of that first graduating class from Mission Ribas, the ones you saw two years ago, are now studying in Mission Sucre.”

One of the major achievements of the Bolivarian revolution is its massive investment of money and human resources in education, an effort that has been matched by the overwhelming response of campesinos and working class people who are enrolling at all levels.

About 6 million people were going to school in 1998 before Chavez was first elected. By 2005, approximately 12 million, or nearly half of Venezuela’s population, were enrolled in all educational programs.

The statistics for the mountainous municipality that includes Sanare (a municipality here is similar to a county in the USA) are even more impressive. “In 1999,” Honorio explained to us, “when Chavez first took office, there were 8,000 students in our municipality of Andres Eloy Blanco. Now, in 2007, there are 25,000 students. That’s out of 47,000 people. More than half of our population is in school.”

Diego gives a cheer for his friend who finished the Mission Sucre program last spring and now is a teacher in the liceo (high school) in Monte Carmelo

Although part of this increase is due to intense efforts to keep children in school who previously would have dropped out, the majority of the new students are adults. About twenty of those participating in Mission Sucre, some with their small children in tow, came to the meeting with the Dickinson students and shared their stories. Many had aspirations of embarking upon new careers, but one single mother of three emphasized a theme that was common to all. “What is important to me,” she said, “is that I am growing as a human being.”

The Zaragoza School

School children also enjoy some new opportunities. There are several Bolivarian schools in the area that offer classes, cultural activities, and athletics all day long, as opposed to the traditional school day of 4 or 5 hours that is still the norm in other schools. While the Bolivarian schools are experimenting with revolutionary educational philosophies and curriculum, they also offer very practical kinds of assistance to students and their families. For instance, all students are fed two free meals during the school day.

This region in the state of Lara was experimenting with progressive education long before Chavez assumed the presidency of Venezuela. One successful example of radical schooling was developed at the Zaragoza School in Palo Verde, a small community on the edge of Sanare. Zaragoza serves as an inspiration to educators in the area and as a model for the new public schools.

The Zaragoza school is a private institution created in 1991 by parents and teachers who were unhappy with the poor quality of public education. Since most of those involved were campesino and working class families, they needed some financial help from progressive Catholic charities to get started. Their own efforts have been considerable: the parents have constructed all of the school buildings themselves; each family contributes as much money as it can toward salaries and expenses; and parents meet regularly to hire their school directors and teachers, as well as choosing the curriculum and setting school policy.

Goya, a founder of the school and one of the current teacher/directors, says that Zaragoza is a “communitarian education project” that really works. In part, she attributes this to the traditions in the surrounding small communities of Palo Verde, Bojo, and Monte Carmelo, which have successfully organized and operated various cooperative ventures for many years.

As for intellectual inspiration, much of it comes from proponents of revolutionary educational methods like Paolo Freire, the Brazilian author of The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. According to Goya, the teachers are trained to be progressive educators who create learning experiences that they are sharing with the students, instead of dictating from above. In keeping with this egalitarian tradition, teachers and students are on a first name basis, and they always sit down to eat together at lunch time. In fact, the teachers take their place in line with the students as they wait to be served. Furthermore, because there are no janitors at the school, teachers and students work together on all maintenance tasks, including cleaning the bathrooms.

Isn’t this anti-authoritarian atmosphere going to create chaos? What about discipline? “It’s hardly necessary,” says Goya, “since the kids are excited to be here every day. Because the parents and teachers run this place together, we’re able to meet comfortably and discuss the case of a child who is having problems learning or socializing with his peers. I can’t ever remember having to expel anyone.”

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