HAVANA - It seemed appropriate that the Orlando Pantoja elementary school in the Vedado section of Havana is housed in two elegant mansions of millionaires who fled Cuba after the triumph of the revolution in 1959.
These neoclassical houses decorated with arched porticos, graceful columns, wrought iron and splendid tiled floors were built for the comfort of the old elite. Indeed, Vedado is Spanish for "forbidden" suggesting just how exclusive this part of Havana used to be. Now the houses serve Cuba's only "privileged class" - children. It is named for a hero of the revolution.
Among the 603 pupils are 105 children from all over Cuba who have been selected for training in Cuba's famed national ballet. Yet the First Grade classroom taught by Grisell Ramirez that I visited is completely integrated with children of all racial backgrounds learning together. When I asked the children if they were making good progress in learning to read, there was a chorus of "Si!"
Martha Sanchez, the school's principal, told me that everything from school supplies to an adequate diet and immunizations against childhood diseases has been delivered to Cuba's youngsters, much of it through Cuba's excellent public school system. The government also guarantees an adequate diet including milk every day.
"School is free for all children," she said. "They come every day and we supply them with books, papers and pencils. We provide a free lunch." There are 28 classroom teachers, 15 pedagogical auxiliaries (paraprofessional aides) and 10 non-teaching personnel. "We have an English language teacher for children in the sixth grade," she said.
"This school used to belong to a wealthy factory owner who left Cuba after the revolution," Sanchez added. "In 1961, it was converted into a school. As enrollment grew, here, we expanded into another house across the street."
Before the Cuban revolution a majority of the Cuban people were illiterate. In 1961, Cuba launched the literacy campaign to teach people to read and write.
"It is one of the achievements of socialism," Sanchez said. "We must maintain this achievement at all cost. In spite of the hardships caused by the blockade, none of our schools has been closed. The state guarantees the conditions for all the schools."
The literacy drive has lifted Cuba's literacy rate to 95.2 highest in Latin America, a key index of the well-being of Cuban children. Meanwhile, Cuba's Ministry of Public Health announced Jan. 1 that Cuba's infant mortality rate fell from 9.4 per 1,000 live births in 1995 to 7.9 per thousand live births in 1996. In 1960, one year after the revolution, Cuba's infant mortality rate was 65 per 1,000 live births. Cuba now ranks in the top 20 nations of the world with an infant mortality rate lower than that of the United States.
The week I left the U.S., there were reverberations from the termination of welfare as an entitlement, a law that will force one million more children into poverty. Already, nearly a quarter of children in the U.S. are poor.
Mercedes Baez Muro, a kindergarten teacher who is also the union representative at the school told me, "We have meetings at this school of all the teachers as well as the entire staff. We have an emulation system to encourage our teachers to improve the quality of their instruction. Every year, we choose a 'teacher of the year.' We also have meetings to give the workers a chance to express their concerns about working conditions."
Cuba has established their own version of the Parent- Teacher-Association. Ms. Sanchez told me, "We call them School Councils in which parents from each classroom meet to discuss any problem and what we can do about it. Community organizations and local government bodies also join in these efforts to maintain the schools.
"The blockade has made it difficult. For example, some medicines are hard to obtain. But you can see for yourself the actions taken by the Party to improve the conditions of the people, the children first of all. So we carry on the struggle in spite of the blockade. We will not surrender."
At lunchtime, I went out onto the playground where the children wearing red and blue Young Pioneer bandanas were munching on hamburgers. I snapped photos of the noisy, healthy, happy children. One bold little boy, Jorgito Vega, a first grader with a big grin and a missing front tooth, said to me in flawless English, "Thank you for coming to visit us!"
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