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Boarding-School System Increasingly Unpopular
By Dalia Acosta, IPS, 4 November 1998
HAVANA, Nov 4 (IPS) - Controversy over a system obliging high-school students in Cuba to go to boarding schools in rural areas has reached unprecedented levels.
The government has reaffirmed its commitment to the policy but parents want better conditions in the schools and studies on the system's repercussions on the family, while the Church wants people to be able to choose where to educate their children.
"This is not a conjunctural situation," said Education Minister Luis Ignacio Gomez. The boarding schools "respond to a pedagogical idea that the country arrived at by consensus," Gomez told 'Granma', organ of the Communist Party.
Gomez said every country had a right to choose its model for educating its children. "In our case, it is not a law," but rather "a strategy to continue building socialism," he argued.
Besides the interview with Gomez, Granma ran, in October, an extensive and unusual series titled 'Scholarships under debate'.
However, an article published in the Catholic magazine 'Vitral' on the autonomy of education defended the right of families and students to choose between boarding and day schools.
"Parents shouldn't have to delegate authority over their children's education to the school, nor should attending school keep children from spending time with their parents," academic Sergio Lazaro Cabarroy said in the 'Vitral' article.
There was controversy over the mandatory nature of the boarding school system from the start, but it flared up this year when Pope John Paul II stressed families' right to choose the type of education they want for their children.
The Pope's call was more than just a demand for the opening of Catholic schools. It was an implicit criticism of a system which, according to the Catholic Church, separates families and causes essential human values to be lost.
Except on rare exceptions - in cases of illness or in certain regions excluded from the system for unknown reasons - the so- called 'rural schools' are the only choice for students in the three pre-university years.
The system, which came into effect 27 years ago as an alternative to the urban pre-university system, was well received by poor families and students with high academic grades, who chose the best boarding schools.
But in the 1990-1991 school year, the government announced that all students who passed into the 10th grade had to go to rural schools, so as to fulfil the goal of linking school to work. Until then, secondary and senior-high students took their classes near their homes and were mobilized once a year for 45 days to do agricultural work.
"I can't explain how schools will be able to create habits of organization in students if the majority of the dorms lack even a closet where they can store their belongings," said Olga Rodriguez, a graduate of a rural pre-university college.
Parents complain about the poor material conditions and deterioration of some schools, the poor food, sexual freedom and in some cases, inadequate supervision of students by their teachers.
Under school regulations, according to Granma, students have to be courteous, respect one another and their teachers, refrain from "physical aggression and offensive name-calling and pranks" and "display responsible sexual conduct".
"Beds must be used individually. More than one student sleeping in each bed is prohibited," the regulations add in reference to a practice that has alarmed many parents in Cuba.
Gomez says measures are being taken to improve the system so that it can respond better to the needs of a country that "has universalized education, and which must universalize work". Since it came to power in 1959, the government has wiped out illiteracy and made education free at all levels.
The Ministry of Education reported in September that some 2.4 million children - about a fifth of Cuba's 11 million people -were in school in the 1998-1999 academic year.
Official arguments in favour of the rural boarding schools include better results such as the increasing number of students have been taking university entrance exams.
Gomez said the students must be heard and people must not draw conclusions only from listening to the adults who at one point had supported the direction of the Cuban Revolution but "now manifest certain paternalistic attitudes".
At the end of the last decade, experts here warned that the Cuban family was being affected by stdents' prolonged absences from home, which have changed the family dynamics on the island, negative affected children's education and undermined the stability of couples.
For Patricia Ares, lecturer in psychology at the University of Havana, you cannot speak of the family's social importance and then routinely separate youngsters from parents when the latter need to play an educative role
[c] 1998, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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