Are Private Secondary Schools Emerging in Cuba?

Dmitri Prieto

repasadorHAVANA TIMES — A brochure handed out in Havana’s neighborhood of Vedado offers a “package” of refresher courses for high-school students. Parents are invited to pay between 5 CUC (Math only) and 15 CUC (Math, Spanish, Physics and Chemistry) a month to ensure their “son or daughter becomes a university student”, calling a mobile phone number for enrollments.

The scope of the academic packages offered catches the eye: they offer refresher courses for the subjects mentioned as well as for the natural sciences, in diverse combinations and at different prices. The subjects are taught in 45-minute lessons (as in most conventional secondary schools) according to a weekly schedule.

One wonders, in view of the way these lessons are structured, whether we are dealing with mere refresher courses or a veritable proposal for an alternative to Cuba’s public schools.

It’s clear the teachers of these refresher courses would not subject students to exams, which would be taken by the latter in the institutions where they “study” officially.

The quotation marks are not accidental: it is also clear that the budding business of private lessons exists thanks to the poor quality of public education, which can’t even manage to have its students pass or obtain good grades at the exams designed by the State educational-methodological bureaucracy on the basis of official programs.

That is why both parents and students turn to “refresher” (or perhaps downright private) lessons as an individual option. I see nothing wrong in the existence of private refresher courses. But State education is in such dire straits that these are beginning to replace the systematic education offered at schools, in their very essence.

The offer I described above isn’t the only one out there. There are others, such as “comprehensive refresher courses”, at 10 CUC a month, offered 3 days a week (1 and a half to 2 hour lessons), for secondary school students, which include the completion of the “assignments” required by teachers of a wide range of subjects.

The issue becomes particularly complex when we start dealing with university admittance exams. Those who wish to purse different kinds of university studies must take a Mathematics, Spanish and History exams. Some private refresher courses charge some 300 Cuban pesos (13 CUC) for lessons (offered 3 times a week) designed to prepare you for these exams in full.

The core problem isn’t (exclusively) that of prices, but the extent to which State education has deteriorated. Following this year’s History university admittance exam, the Ministry of Higher Education had to offer a public statement in the news, explaining that the contents of the exam were to be found “in textbooks” and hadn’t been prepared on the basis of the whims of the examiners.

It seems many of those aspiring to enter university who failed those exams had complained.

When those of us who graduated years ago saw the exam questions put on screen, they struck as the most elementary queries about facts that, it is logical to assume, “every Cuban ought to know” about the country’s history.

Will private schools that offer an alternative to State institutions emerge, reducing the latter to mere venues for “rituals of passage” (examinations) for young people who wish to “go up the ladder” of their personal education? That is the question.