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Responding to National Turmoil at ECA

By Gregory A. Hedger

Caracas was like a pot of hot water about to boil over. The pressure had been building for months and there was a general sense that something had to give.
We had witnessed a slow but steady deterioration of the political, economic, and social situation in Venezuela since the close of 2012, corresponding to the death of the former president, Hugo Chavez. This event was followed in short order by the microscopically close election and challenged victory of Chavez’s chosen successor over the opposition candidate. From that point on, things seemed to descend into a rapid downward spiral.
From the time of the election to the end of the 2012–13 school year, we began to note shortages, along with a slow decline in the black market value of the local currency, the Bolivars. This gradual reduction in the value of the currency accelerated over the summer of 2013. Whereas at the close of 2012, 10 Bolivars bought one U.S. dollar in the parallel market, now the exchange rate was forty-to-one and would continue to rise, reaching 90-to-one within a few months.
Shortages of food staples became more severe, while medicines and other necessities were added to the list of unavailable items. Crime increased as people became more desperate. Average citizens watched their quality of life deteriorate. With these trends, there developed sense of urgency that something needed to happen.
It did. In February 2014, students in the west of Venezuela took to the streets to demonstrate in the interest of greater security. The government’s crackdown on these demonstrations lit a fire that caused further demonstrations to rapidly spread throughout the country.
Within a matter of days, roadblocks sprang up, leaving commuters stranded on their way to work and school. Clashes broke out between students and members of the National Guard, and marches rallying tens of thousands became an almost daily occurrence. All of this turmoil was to continue for months, with Escuela Campo Alegre (ECA) right in the heart of a district that would become seen as the opposition’s stronghold. It was suddenly clear that school could no longer continue as normal.
One of the first challenges we faced as a school was to decide whether or not to remain open. Given our location, many students, and some faculty, would have a hard time getting here. However, we also realized that, in times of trouble, one of the most important roles a school can play is to provide its students and community with a sense of normalcy.
After much reflection, our administrative team determined that we should continue to provide our students with ongoing, uninterrupted learning for as long as possible. Naturally, we also needed to support both faculty and student families as they made daily decisions regarding their personal safety in navigating the city streets.
We very quickly established a number of routines in how to manage this evolving crisis. The leadership team met at the start of each day—and sometimes throughout the day—to share updates and brainstorm approaches to emerging crises. During one of these meetings, we hit on a solution.
It was in one of our first brainstorming sessions that our High School Principal suggested a type of blended learning concept that would allow students who could come to school to attend, while those who couldn’t reach campus could learn online. Similarly, those teachers who could come would, but those who couldn’t would teach via online platforms.
The principals took this idea back to the faculty, who quickly jumped on board. Before long, teachers were not only planning lessons to teach on site, but also making daily learning available through a variety of different online platforms. We thus communicated to our community that the choice of whether or not to come to school was theirs, depending on the safety conditions, but that learning at ECA would continue every day regardless.
The results were amazing. This one simple decision regarding blended learning transformed our school. We found ourselves in a situation in which we were able to stay true to what we believed was important—providing a sense of normalcy thanks to continued learning at a highly volatile time in the country’s history—while also supporting our faculty and student families in making the best and safest decisions for themselves.
The demonstrations continued for several months, with varying intensity. We maintained our focus through it all, until this remote campus approach was no longer needed. As a result, ECA never closed our doors, and we may well be the only school in Caracas that can claim this. This experience has also propelled us to further investigate online blended learning platforms as we prepare for the future, knowing that anything can happen.
Gregory Hedger is Superintendent at Escuela Campo Alegre in Caracas, Venezuela.

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