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Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies

Ariadna Barrera, 27, assists her 7-year-old son, Jordan, with his schoolwork


In Cuba, Parents Back Up Teachers

By Tonyaa Weathersbee
Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies

HAVANA – Minutes before the last bell rings at Pedro Domingo Murillo Primary School, Ariadna Barrera doesn’t wait for her 7-year-old son, Jordan, to come outside.
She goes inside to see how he’s coming along in his learning.

“I help him to do most of his homework,” Barrera said, as she knelt down to help the boy with the exercises scrawled in his notebook.

“I help him do his problems, the mathematical operations, correctly,” she said. “But most of all, I let him do his activities independently, to not depend on me all the time.”

Barrera might very well urge her son to learn on his own. But the point is that she, like most Cuban parents, urge their children to learn. Period.

It is that kind of encouragement that is driving this Third World country to post First World literacy rates. Right now Cuba’s literacy rate is almost 100 percent, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the CIA World Factbook, while the U.S. literacy rate is 99 percent.

Cuba’s high school graduation rate also bests that of the United States at 99.1 percent, according to UNESCO. The U.S. graduation rate is around 73 percent now, and in some predominantly black school districts such as Detroit, the graduation rate is a dismal 25 percent.

Poor graduation numbers such as that are tied to what’s being called the racial achievement gap in public schools in the United States. Just 14 percent of black fourth-graders are proficient in national reading assessments compared with 43 percent of white students. And by 8th grade there’s a 30-point gap in math scores between black and white students, the 2008 Educational Testing Service reports.

By the time they reach 12th grade, black students in the U.S. are four years behind their white peers in English, math and science and post an average SAT score 200 points lower than white students, reports The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy group.

School and ministry officials interviewed in Havana say there is no perceptible racial achievement gap in their country and that they do not have high numbers of racially isolated schools such as those in lower-income areas in the United States.

Cuba and the United States both run a public education system in which majorities of the students are students of color.

And one of the secrets to Cuba’s success in educating its students of color – besides being under a communist system that ties the success of the state to the success of individuals versus the other way around – is a national requirement that parents be involved with their children’s education.

“Our own national constitution establishes, in a very mandatory way, for parents to pay attention to their children’s education,” said Alina Verdi, principal of Pedro Domingo Murillo.

“We’re talking about parents coming every day to school, and (some) staying here all day long from eight to five. Besides the homework they have to do at home, they have the rich involvement of them being at school.

“We don’t want parents to see primary school as a day care-center,” Verdi said. “Parents have to see school as a laboratory. When it is developed as a daily process of learning and behavior, children and parents learn.”

Unfortunately, in far too many inner-city schools in the U.S., parental participation is low. And a number of studies suggest that if the black-white achievement gap is to be closed, that problem must be addressed.

In 2006, the Harvard Family Research Project found that black students from low-income families whose parents participate in their elementary school education are far more likely to do well in high school and graduate.

It also found that the ability of parents to help children reinforce the skills they learn at school – as Barrera does with her son – and promote learning outside of school also is key to a child’s educational success.

The Cubans recognize that as well – and they accommodate parents in living up to that.
Among other things, according to Verdi, whose primary school is part of a complex that houses three junior high schools, a pedagogical institute and a university, is that monthly parent meetings are mandatory. While most parents participate, Verdi said that those who are having trouble doing so aren’t ignored.

“Of course, some students need special attention, and some families need special attention,” she said. “So we also pay visits to the children’s house. A social worker is the link between the dysfunctional families and the school … there are school counsels. They participate at the classroom level and school level.”

And if that doesn’t work, there’s the Cuban Women’s Federation. Organized in every block, the federation does what nosey neighbors used to do in black, inner-city neighborhoods: They ask the troubled family what’s going on, and they offer to help.

“Apart from the monthly meetings, we have some meetings called family education meetings,” Verdi said. “We have problems when parents get divorced and they cannot handle that situation.

“We have to get them prepared for those meetings, and we have to let them know that their personal situation cannot hurt the school. They learn about all the materials that the children are learning with, and how to help their children at home.

“We have a responsibility to help the parents learn how

they can help their children, through family education,” Verdi said. “Parents have the right to learn about the performance of their children at school.”

Of course, Cuba has another advantage when it comes to parental involvement. Because of the Revolution and its emphasis on universal education and health care, most Cuban parents have at least a high school or college education.

In the United States, a number of studies show that the success of the child depends largely on the educational level of the parent. But in cities like Detroit - in which the high school graduation rate is low - many children who enter school are born to parents who didn’t finish.

“One of the reasons that Cuba has these results is the atmosphere of equity,” said Regla Silva Hernandez, Cuba’s director of primary education. “Most of the parents have at least a middle level or higher level education level.”

And while education in the United States is largely controlled by state governments, that’s not the case in Cuba.

“We have a (national) model for primary education,” Hernandez said. “First, the child is able to write, to read, to understand and to interpret, and also … able to produce and think by himself.

“Once students finish their 6th-grade, they have to be good communicators. They have to be able to look for information from a given source, and also to be able to interpret and understand that information.

“As far as mathematics goes,” Hernandez said, “they have to be able to solve the everyday problems with math. They have to know the fractions and the natural numbers.”

At Verdi’s school, the parents are there to help the children meet those standards – something that likely contributed to the fact that out of this school of 502 children, only two are repeating a grade this year.

In the classrooms, which hold no more than 25 children, parents come and interact with their children during the first lesson, which begins 8 a.m., Verdi said. Parents who are working during that time also have the option of coming between noon and 2 p.m.

Or, Verdi said, if a parent can’t come at all, he or she can send a grandparent.
Both Verdi and Hernandez said that if a parent refuses to participate in their child’s education regardless of the options they have, and the social service help being offered, that parent might be subjected to fines and other penalties.

But they claim such situations are rare.

In any case, the influence of the parents was clear during a recent visit to the school.
Twelve-year-old Yusnief Azcuy, a sixth-grader who was just elected president of the primary school, said he knows who to go to for help with his schoolwork.

“When I have a doubt, I ask my mother,” Yusnief said. “She helps me. She comes for the monthly meetings.

“When I told her (that he was elected president) she was very happy.”
Besides Barrera, the end of the school day brought out Zaida Pablos, who heads the parent council at the school, and Miriam Hernandez.

Both have grandchildren at the school.

“Our purpose is to take care of every child in the school, to participate in every school activity,” said Pablos, who came to pick up her 7-year-old grandson, Carlos Manuel Perez. “We contribute to the maintenance of the school and the cleaning.”

Said Miriam Hernandez of her granddaughter, 7-year-old Chabeli Chacon: “I help her do her homework, and I help raise her because her mother is very young.

“She’s doing very well in school. Spanish is her favorite subject.”

For Barrera, who is an official of the worker’s union in Marianao, the municipality in which the school complex is located, shaping Jordan’s education is part of her responsibility - not just as a parent, but as a player in his future.

“It is important, because I am his background and his support,” she said. “We are putting in a little seed to have a big tree later.”

L to R, Alina Verdi, principal, and Regla Hernandez, primary education director

Index of Black-White Achievement Gap Stories