Venezuela schools face violence due to lack of food, teachers
The soaring crime and economic chaos stalking Venezuela is ripping apart a once-up-and-coming school system.
Maria Arias slipped her notebooks into her backpack, scrounged for a banana to share with her brother and sister, and set off for high school through narrow streets so violent taxis will not come here for any price. She hoped at least one teacher would show up.
But her 7 a.m. art class was canceled when the teacher called in sick. History class was suspended. There was no gym class because the coach had been shot dead weeks earlier. And in the afternoon, her Spanish teacher sent the students home early to meet a gang-imposed curfew.
Maria's 1,700-student school sits between a slum and what was once a middle-class neighborhood in the capital, Caracas. Shortages are even more crippling outside Caracas, where schools shut down for weeks at a time.
Officially, Venezuela has canceled 16 school days since December, including Friday classes because of an energy crisis.
In reality, Venezuelan children have missed an average of 40 percent of class time, a parent group estimates, as a third of teachers skip work on any given day to wait in food lines.
At Maria's school, so many students have fainted from hunger that administrators told parents to keep underfed children home. And while the school locks its gate each morning, armed robbers still manage to break in and stick up kids between classes.
Until recently Venezuela's schools were among the best in South America, and the late President Hugo Chavez made education a centerpiece of his socialist revolution.
But in just a few years, the falling price of oil and underlying economic mismanagement have brought the country to its knees, along with many of its 7 million public school students.
Teachers are fleeing the country, the annual dropout rate has doubled, and more than a quarter of teenagers are not enrolled.
Maria and her friends drink water from home instead of eating lunch, since the new cafeteria never opened because there was no food or cooking gas. A quarter of Venezuelan children missed school this year because of hunger, according to the national research group Foundation Bengoa.
As many as 40 percent of teachers skip class on any given day to wait in food lines, according to the Venezuela Teacher's Federation.
The school looks less like a place of education than a downtown bus terminal; grimy, smelling of urine, and full of people waiting for something that may not come.
Students play dice on the cracked asphalt of the yard, trading insults and piles of bills. The patio was used for gym class until the teacher was killed in crossfire this spring while working a second job as a barber.