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How the Project Developed

Even a short account of the progress of the Free School project from the start of detailed planning in the autumn of 2002 would run to many pages.

Instead, here is a summary of the milestones we passed along the way:


October - extensive information-gathering leads to our decision to locate the Free School in either Ecuador or Venezuela. In Venezuela, two states (Amazonas and Sucre) have the highest poverty and illiteracy rates. We decide to visit the coast of Sucre and to explore the region around Río Caribe.

November - our first trip to Venezuela. Numerous meetings with teachers and development workers in the Río Caribe region confirm that there is a real need - an illiteracy rate of 26%, three-quarters of all 11-16 year olds do not attend school, high unemployment and widespread poverty.

December - we buy a piece of land in Churupal (10 kms east of Río Caribe) with a view to building a 6-classroom school. The property has an abundance of fruit trees - mango, cocoa, papaya, orange, lemon, mandarine, banana, nispero - but is overgrown with wild bushes. We commission a topographer to create an accurate map of the property.

December - a general strike begins with the aim of forcing President Chávez to call elections. We return to Germany a few days before Christmas. The strike lasts two months, creating food shortages and power cuts, but fails.


February - our topographer carries out the survey of the Churupal property. It reveals a huge area of semi-flat ground suitable for building.

April - Gerhard Greiner, a Kassel architect, designs a school building similar in style to the colonial Posada Caribana. The school will have six classrooms, an office, kitchen, dining room, sick room, store room, toilets and showers for 72 students.

May - our second visit to Río Caribe. Our primary goal is to get offers from local builders and to begin with installing a septic tank and connecting to the mains water supply. The Churupal property has suffered from forest fires through the dry season. Everything looks brown and sad. We also discover that the topographical map is not accurate - we can't go ahead with Gerhard's design.

Rigoberto Aponte, a local architect, and Billy Esser, who runs the Hacienda Bukare, help us create alternative designs.

We collect prices from seven local builders. Their estimates are more than we have budgeted. We consider a new option: rather than invest all our resources in a construction project, we should rent a building in which to start the school to ensure that we are able to overcome any unforeseen obstacles. We will need to obtain a permit to run the school, to find competent teachers and to attract students who dropped out of school years before. Our goal, after all, is to create a school, not to construct a building.

June - we return to Kassel with a bundle of builders' pricelists, an amended topographical chart and the makings of a new plan: to find a suitable building to rent and to recruit teachers.

August - advertisements for teachers placed in Venezuelan national newspapers produce meagre results - a handful of unsuitable applicants.

September to December - further advertising produces two strong teacher candidates. But after some weeks, one decides to stay in Caracas where her husband works as a doctor and the other accepts a job offer as a graphic designer. We are back to square one.


January - we learn of a building to rent in Río Caribe, located somewhere along the road seen below. It has four rooms, a kitchen, two bathrooms and a small garden. We imagine it could provide three classrooms and an office - enough to start the school on a smaller scale.

February - a new applicant sends her cv. She's an experienced teacher and lives in Río Caribe. A contact at the Fundacion Proyecto Paria, a development agency based in Río Caribe, says she knows some unemployed teachers who might be suitable. It is eight months since our last visit. We decide to return to Río Caribe in order to see the vacant building, to interview the teacher and to search for more staff.

February - on our third trip to Río Caribe, everything falls neatly into place: the available house is in good condition and ideal for a school with three classrooms. This would mean three classes of eight students and three teachers. Maria Magdalena, our teacher candidate, performs well in interview. Our contacts at the Fundacion Proyecto Paria recommend a candidate for the position of school manager, Florangel. With five years' experience working in a bank as well as teaching experience, she impresses us in interview. We sign a rental contract for the house and offer positions to both Maria Magdalena and Florangel. They accept. We have the beginnings of a team to run the Free School.

March - in our third and final week of this, our third visit to Río Caribe, we work intensively with our teacher and manager. Our tasks: to prepare our application to the Venezuelan Ministry of Education for a permit for the school, write shopping lists for furniture, kitchen equipment and all other items we will need, devise tests to assess the literacy level of potential students and compile a list of contacts for locating students.

The restaurant cooks we have known since our first trip in 2002 accept our job offers. Our taxi driver, Gollo, agrees to be our school driver, bringing students to school in the mornings and taking them home at the end of the day. Olivia, another friend, recommends a suitable nightwatchman who in turn knows of another to share the task of guarding the school against burglaries at night.

Three days before our flight back to Germany we have a complete team, seen here at our kick-off meeting at the Escuela Caribe, the new name for the Free School: (from left to right) Cosmelina, breakfast cook; Angela, lunch cook; Yoli, cleaner; Maria Magdalena, literacy teacher; Luis Figuera, nightwatchman; Joe; Luis Espinoza, nightwatchman; Florangel, manager and literacy teacher. Not pictured are Gollo the driver, Lucino the gardener at the Churupal property and Micha. The Free School has already created five full-time and four part-time jobs.

April - while Florangel and Maria Magalena continue preparations to meet our opening day goal of May 3rd, further e-mail job applications come in from teachers resident in or near Río Caribe. Our plan is to start the school with one class of eight students. At the end of May we hope to appoint a second teacher. Within a few months, with three full-time teachers, Escuela Caribe will be "my school" for 24 young people learning how to read and write.

May to July - the Free School team diligently prepares for the start of classes. Maria Magdalena's twin priorities are developing teaching materials and recruiting potential students. By mid-July eighteen illiterate teenagers have registered. Cosmelina and Angela prepare daily meals for the staff, putting to good use the newly-purchased kitchen equipment and establishing a routine in readiness for the arrival of the first group of students.

Florangel, now with a computer at the school and an internet connection, works through her long list of organisational tasks: everything from buying fans and lights for the classrooms to keeping financial records and planning the Churupal vegetable garden with Lucino. But obtaining the permit to open the school remains as elusive as ever, stretching the limits of everyone's patience. First we're told we need to apply to the provincial capital, Cumaná, then to the ministry in Caracas.

Then it turns out it's Cumaná after all. Weeks go by and we hear nothing. Finally, we learn that according to government definitions we're not opening a school but an educational centre. We will have to submit our application all over again. We set a new opening day goal : early September. Meanwhile Florangel and Maria Magdalena convene a meeting of potential students and their parents (seen below) to explain the delay and assure them that we really are going to open the school soon.

October - the big day finally arrives! Thank you to our splendid team at La Escuela Caribe.

Florangel, our manager, has made the 400 km return trip from Río Caribe to the government offices in Cumaná numerous times since March in pursuit of the elusive permit that gives us the legal right to start classes at the Escuela Caribe.

Throughout these demanding and frustrating eight months Florangel has assembled an impressive collection of certificates, authorisations, permits and approvals. At the same time, our excellent team has been busy getting the school ready for the big moment: preparing lessons and materials for teaching literacy, recruiting students, organising the kitchen and keeping the school in good order day and night.

The first group of eight young people are greeted by their teacher Maria Magdalena and the rest of the staff at La Escuela Caribe for their first day of school on Monday October 25th.

For these boys and girls, aged from nearly 12 to 16, this really is back to school. Some have not been to school for several years. None can read or write.

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