HAVANA TIMES, August 7 (IPS) – Without fanfare or major explanations, the Cuban government has begun to dismantle the system of mandatory rural boarding school for students in the last three years of high school – one of various reforms aimed at improving the quality of education that will start to be implemented at the start of the next school year in September.
The news, which had been going around the schools for some time as a rumor, was confirmed at the end of the school year by Education Minister Ena Elsa Velásquez.
She said the process would begin in Havana with 10th grade students, who in the 2009-2010 academic years would be assigned to schools within the city limits.
After 9th grade, students in Cuba opt for either technical-vocational high schools or pre-university schools, which are boarding schools in rural areas.
The mandatory nature of the boarding schools for 10th, 11th and 12th grade students and the overall decline in the educational system have been a source of concern to families and sectors of civil society, as well as social researchers, who underlined the indispensable role played by parents during adolescence.
Under the new changes, students in the 11th and 12th grades will complete their senior high school studies in rural pre-university schools in Havana province, near the city.
“A restructuring has been carried out, and the students will be regrouped in those schools that have the best installations,” Velasquez told the press.
The minister added that baccalaureate students in the rest of the country would gradually be incorporated into the new plan, depending on the conditions in each area and the state of the school buildings.
A Four Decades Old Program
“There will always be boarding school students, because there are regions in the country where young people live in isolated geographic areas,” said Velasquez.
She also clarified that the system would maintain the “school to the countryside” program, in which all students must spend a month and a half in rural areas every year working in agriculture.
The rural boarding school system emerged nearly four decades ago, but only became compulsory for 10th, 11th and 12th grade students in the early 1990s, as part of a government strategy aimed at linking studies with work.
The decision was controversial. “Either you went to pre-university school in the countryside or you gave up the idea of going to the university. I had a really good grade average, but I decided to go to a technical school. It took me a little longer, but I was able to study at the university, where now I am a professor,” a 29-year-old woman who declined to give her name told IPS.
The technical school option is chosen by a significant number of students, while others simply drop out.
“My daughter decided to go to pre-university school, but we had to give her a lot of support, visiting her during the week and bringing her food. Don’t even ask what we spent during those years,” said Nilda González, whose daughter went on to study engineering.
But several professionals who attended high-quality boarding schools for math and sciences, which are for gifted students, told IPS that the experience of living away from their families and combining work and study had a positive influence on their lives.
“If the schools have the same conditions that they had in my time, I wouldn’t have any objections in the case of my daughter, because it helps you become independent, and you learn to live with all kinds of people. It’s like a rehearsal for real life,” said a 40-year-old journalist who has a 12-year-old daughter.
Tougher Requirements for University
Along with the gradual return of baccalaureate students to urban schools, education officials announced that as of the next school year, a stricter, more demanding grading system will be put in place, which will also raise the bar for admission to university.
For the 2009-2010 school year, high school graduates applying for university will have to earn at least 60 out of 100 points on exams in three common subjects: Cuban history, Spanish and math.
The grades they earn on these three exams, along with their overall academic records, will determine their ranking when it comes to selection for university admissions.
According to university authorities, the “political-ideological” training of students will also be strengthened, and will be taken into account in the selection process.
“Education has a huge task: guaranteeing the continuity of the revolution. Because the youngsters in the classrooms today will be the leaders in all of the country’s activities in 25 or 30 years,” said a high-level government official.
Education in Cuba, one of the main achievements of the socialist government, was hurt during the severe economic crisis of the 1990s, when many teachers left their profession for jobs where they could earn more, such as tourism-related activities. The shortfall of teachers since then has been frequently mentioned as one of the main causes of the decline in education.
Last year, the government authorized and urged retired teachers to return to the classroom or become tutors for young teachers. Nearly 8,000 retirees – mainly primary and secondary school teachers, as well as some professors – took the government up on its offer.
In addition, teachers’ salaries were raised early this month.
In the 2008-2009 school year, overall academic performance was marked by the fact that 4,342 schools were affected by three hurricanes that swept through the country in late 2008, causing a total of 10 billion dollars in material and economic damages.