Venezuela tries to pull politics out of the classroom

If it weren't for the violence, one might say that Venezuela's schoolchildren have been able to witness Latin American history in the making - a real-life civics lesson without equal.

Jackson Todd, a sixth-grader at Juan Batista Alberdi Elementary School in the western slums of Caracas, watched in January as his teachers walked out and joined a national strike aimed at toppling Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez. Shortly thereafter, some of his classmates' parents, who support the embattled president, seized control of the school and recruited volunteer instructors, who remain in the classrooms to this day.

It would be hard to overstate how deeply this political conflict permeates Venezuelan society. Schoolyard brawls in Caracas aren't just about picking on the class nerd anymore. Now they erupt over who's a "Chavista" and who isn't.

"Children are not on the margins of the situation we're in - they're right in the middle, and they have to be given the tools to deal with the situation," says Fernando Perrera, executive director of the Community Centers for Learning (CECODAP), a nonprofit organization that sponsors conflict-resolution workshops in schools.

In an attempt to dial back the political pugilism, a new subject has been added to Jackson's syllabus: tolerance. In his school, and others, educators are looking for ways to return the classroom to neutral ground and ensure that the violent acts of Venezuela's adults aren't passed to the next generation.

"During the strike, schoolyards were converted into battlegrounds," says Franca Trezza, a child psychologist whose busy practice is crowded with young patients traumatized by Venezuela's social crisis. "The children became completely politicized. Now the schools have to tackle those differences and create a culture of peace."

Soccer - and respect

For example, in a recent history class, Jackson made a diorama of a soccer field, complete with grandstands and cardboard soccer players skewered on toothpicks. "The players play against each other, but they have respect," says Jackson, who will use his project to illustrate an oral report on tolerance. "This is supposed to teach us to always respect our opponents."

The "opponents" in Venezuela's deeply divided society fall on either side of the country's embattled president. Amid efforts to unseat him, the country has been divided into protesters and supporters. Mr. Chávez has agreed to set the stage for a recall election later this year, and four out of five members of an electoral commission are in place. But getting legislators to agree on the fifth and final candidate after months of looking shows just how hard it is to find someone who is politically neutral here.

To be sure, teaching children how to bury the hatchet has proven difficult. Many parents who took part in the strike have been forced to transfer their children out of schools in pro-Chávez neighborhoods because of playground taunts and threats. Conversely, government ministers, whose children have been the targets of abuse in tony private academies on the city's east side, have switched schools as well, balkanizing the children.

Youngsters have been quick to adopt the political positions of their elders, and unlearning takes time. This is especially true in Caracas, where a "Berlin Wall" of political difference separates the poor, pro-Chávez barrios in the west from the glitzy, anti-Chávez east. Schools fall in line with neighborhoods, like so many political chips.

"In lots of cases, teachers forbid their students to discuss politics, but the solution to the problem is not to sweep it under the table," says Mr. Perrera. "Children, just like adults, need to learn how to communicate in ways that are healthy."

In the absence of a nationwide effort, child-welfare organizations have joined with educators and child psychiatrists in an ad hoc effort to depoliticize the classroom. CECODAP sponsors workshops for students as well as teachers.

A handful of nonprofit groups are at work training teachers around the country in the basic tenets of dispute-settlement: focus on the problems, not the participants; learn how to listen; look for "win-win" solutions that are free of judgment. Role-playing is suggested, and instructors are encouraged to incorporate peacemaking into their curricula.

At Alberdi elementary, where children play soccer in a dusty field next to a mountain of rusted chairs and desks, values are taught every day.

In a drab second-floor classroom, sixth-grade teacher Danny Camaripano stands in front of his 60 students, pensively rolling a piece of chalk between his fingers.

"What would you do if someone wanted to fight you?" he asks the classroom.

Norma Acosa, a beaming extrovert, raises her hand.

"I wouldn't do it," she says.

"What would you do?" Mr. Camaripano asks her.

"I'd talk with him, and find out what the problem is," Norma says.

Over the course of the 50-minute class, Camaripano lectures about values and peppers his students with hypotheticals, coaxing tentative answers from quiet types and back-row pranksters alike.

Prolonged power struggle

But at Alberdi, where teachers were locked out following January's general strike, efforts to put politics aside have been hamstrung by a prolonged power struggle.

The anti-Chávez mayor of greater Caracas, Alfredo Peña, has stated that children at the school will have to repeat the year if the original teachers are not reinstated. The Chávez-controlled Ministry of Education, in turn, has offered to credential the replacement teachers. Both sides claim to have the best interests of the students in mind.

Until Venezuela's schools revert to the politically neutral places of learning they were before the country's split, schoolchildren have had national politics added to the petty politics that are more typical of an elementary school - who they eat lunch with, what they look like, what kind of clothes they wear.

"I thought school was hard before," says Nairobi Pedros, a 12-year-old at Juan Batista Alberdi. "Now it's harder."

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