CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — 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.
“It’s a trap,” the slight 14-year-old with pink lipstick complained. “You risk your life to be here and end up waiting around for hours doing nothing. But you have to keep coming because it’s the only way out.”
The soaring crime and economic chaos stalking Venezuela is ripping apart a once-up-and-coming school system, robbing poor students such as Maria of any chance at a better life. 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.
“This country has abandoned its children. By the time we see the full consequences, there will be no way to put it right,” Movement of Organized Parents spokeswoman Adelba Taffin said.
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’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.
Chatty and so studious her classmates call her “Wikipedia,” Maria started the year with dreams of becoming an accountant and moving to Paris. Her parents had saved up to buy her 12 new notebooks, one for each subject. Nine months later, most of the pages are still blank.
Her accounting teacher Betty Cubillan recently went missing for a week and a half. Cubillan says she comes to class as much as she can while hustling to get by on $30 a month.
“If I don’t line up, I don’t eat. Who’s going to do it for me?” Cubillan said.
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. School director Helena Porras has asked nearby supermarkets to let teachers cut in line. And she’s disciplined staff for selling students passing grades in exchange for scarce goods like milk and flour.
But appeals to teachers’ sense of shame don’t go far in a country that has become one of the most violent and lawless in the world.
Maria has seen robberies, lootings and lynch mobs on her way to school. Workers lock a metal gate at the building’s sole entrance each day, but thugs still find ways in. Maria was once held up by a baby-faced boy who leveled a gun at her sister’s ribs and demanded the girls’ phones.
“I’m scared every day. Your heart leaps into your throat and you’re like, ‘Jeez, I thought a school was supposed to be safe,'” she said.
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.
Classrooms with puddles are used as emergency toilets now that the bathrooms have no running water. 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.
Maria’s parents worry most about boys; Venezuela now has the highest teen pregnancy rate in South America. The favorite make-out spot for students is behind a pile of 30,000 unopened textbooks from the government. Teachers decided they were too full of pro-socialist propaganda to use.
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.
One recent morning, Maria’s mother asked her to leave art class because a store across town was selling flour. By the time Maria arrived, the stock already had run out. She raced back to school for her afternoon math exam, but the math teacher didn’t show up.
That night, Maria remarked bitterly that the metro is the cheapest thing you can buy in Caracas; if you pay for one ticket and throw yourself in front of a train, all your problems are over.
Parents say they struggle to guide teenagers through situations they find hard to accept themselves.
The father of a classmate, Roberly Bernal, began walking her to school every morning after a group of seniors threatened to stab her. Then, in April, he was murdered by a mob that accused him of stealing $5.
Maria put off returning home when the school day ended. A classmate showed the girls a baby sparrow he’d grabbed out of a tree in the yard. “We should eat it,” he said.
Maria squealed with delight when the fluffy bird opened its wings. It was the first time she had laughed all day.