President's Corner                                           Page 47


What a Great Country — Ours!  


 Amy Sichel

In early July, we traveled with delegates to Cuba with AASA’s People to People Ambassador Program for global understanding and educational exchange. This was the association’s first delegation to Cuba in more than 10 years, so we all were excited to hear and see the educational programs, health care initiatives and the international perspective from this beautiful country.

Clearly, traveling to a developing nation where the United States has an economic blockade is not a common choice for an educational trip. However, we were enlightened and continually asked to consider the Cubans’ perspective, so here are my impressions.

The educational system is built largely on the European model. All children are required to attend school and encouraged to continue to high school and beyond. Although the government states that 98 percent of the children take advantage of preschool education, only 15 percent attend formal preschools. The vast majority of preschool education is provided by the parent via government-sponsored parent training.

By grade 7 and no later than grade 9, students decide to pursue a polytechnic education or go on to the university level. All education in Cuba is free, even adult education, so Cubans of all ages continue on or return to higher education. At the university level, acceptance is based on the students’ grades plus the results on Spanish, history and mathematics exams.

We learned that 97 percent of the country is literate, due in part to countrywide literacy programs. In 1960, a literacy campaign began in which young adults reached out to teach those who were illiterate. The Yo, Sí Puedo (“Yes, I Can”) campaigns for literacy continue today, with outreach into more than 35 developing nations, including Cuba.

Cubans are proud of their educational system and were delighted to show it off to us. As outsiders, we were impressed by the nationwide literacy rate of 97 percent, free education beginning with preschool and extending through college, and offers of free education for adults. Yet, from my perspective, the United States continues to lead the most robust system of public education.

We aspire to offer preschool education for all, which is our ongoing national agenda, and continue to struggle with literacy and the cost of postsecondary education. But we do not expect our students to make a decision about their future by 9th grade, and our measures for college acceptance are not limited to grades and scores on three exams. We offer quality public education for all, vocational-technical education with high academic standards, community college as a gateway to a four-year degree and the best higher education programs in the world.

Noticeably, post-revolution Cuba has had a paradigm shift with offering preschool education through the university level at no cost. We also saw the beginning of some privatization with restaurants, markets, taxis and a few other small businesses, which Cuba realizes it has to pursue to promote economic recovery. The Cubans were most interested in our perspective and in encouraging us to see the value and wisdom of their approaches. They are initiating change for their country through solidarity and advocacy and are champions for their cause.

It was a great week for our delegation in Cuba, filled with enriching cultural and educational experiences. We experienced a great deal and conversed with proud, caring and friendly people with a great Latin beat.

Upon our arrival back in the United States, with our flag flying high and the gold eagle statue proudly displayed, we returned home and once again said to ourselves, “What a great country America is,” for there truly is no place like home!

Amy Sichel is AASA president for 2013-14. E-mail: AmySichel@Abington.k12.pa.us 


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