Monday, December 7, 2015

Opening of U.S. Embassy brings little change to Havana’s only English-speaking school

By: Olivia Hitchcock
Produced & Edited by: Danielle Keeton-Olsen

Luca Cavicchioli compared it to an airport. Students are constantly coming and going at the International School of Havana, the only English-speaking school in Cuba’s capital city.

The United States Embassy, which opened its doors in Havana in July for the first time since the 1960s, advertises the school as the place for diplomats to send their sons and daughters.

For non-Cubans who want to study outside of the state-run schools, there are few options, and only one possibility if they are looking to be taught in English. The three other foreign schools in Cuba are run in French, Russian and Spanish.

The International School of Havana, which offers classes from preschool through high school taught entirely in English, is now at about capacity — 419 students — but the opening of the U.S. Embassy had little to do with the increase in students, according to Ian Morris, principal of the school.

The opening of the U.S. Embassy was not much more than a change in name, Morris, who has run the school for more than 15 years, added.

An alternative to state-run schools

Students wearing school uniforms walk through
Havana (Photo via Wikimedia)
It is business, not diplomacy, that is bringing the influx of students to the school, Morris said. In the first half of 2015, warming relations with the U.S. had already led to a nearly 5 percent increase in economic growth in Cuba, according to Reuters. To accommodate the growth, the school is, for now, only accepting new students who are the children of diplomats, as a result of space constraints, Morris said.

The school opened in 1965 as a place to educate diplomats’ children outside of the Spanish-speaking, state-run Cuban schools. The government approved the international school under the condition that only foreign passport holding children could attend. The Cuban government requires its citizens to be educated in a state-run school for ideological purposes, Morris said.

Decades later, about two-thirds of the students at the international school are children of businessmen, and the remaining one-third have parents who work as diplomats, Morris said. The Cuban government’s push to encourage business has brought more foreign families to Cuba, he added.

Business is what brought Lucas Cocco Delgado’s father to Cuba decades ago. His dad, a Brazilian, met Cocco’s mother, a Cuban, there, and the now 18-year-old was born not long after.

Thanks to his Brazilian passport, Cocco had the option of attending the International School. Students must have a foreign passport to attend the school, Morris said.

From the age of 2, Cocco attended the International School. He spent 16 years there.

“(My parents) were like, ‘English is the key to the future. This is the only school in English,’ so they sent me there,” Cocco said. “I’m so glad they did.”

Cocco, who is a freshman studying molecular biology at Harvard College, said his Cuban ID has been denied solely because his English is so strong. Neither of his parents speak English.

A diverse student body

Alba Murcia Fernandez barely knew English on her first day of third grade at the International School in 2007. The now 16-year-old had moved from Spain for her dad’s job in cargo, which had brought her family to Cuba.

“My brothers and I were young enough that it wouldn’t be difficult to learn (English),” Murcia said of her time in the school. So they were enrolled in the International School, where they continued to study until 2013.

Most students only spend a few years there, Yannick Mertens, a Belgian who spent 10 years at the school, said. The children of diplomats typically stay for four years, as that is how long their parents are usually assigned to be in Cuba, the now 23-year-old said. His family loved Cuba so much, Mertens said, that his father convinced the Belgian government to extend his family’s stay in the country.

“At (the International School of Havana), students go in and out sometimes (without) warning, so everyone sends out this vibe of ‘give everything now, since you don’t know when they will go,’ ” Mertens said. “There is a limited time in (the school) to make a positive impact on another person.”

Cavicchioli, whose father works for the Italian government, studied at the International School of Havana for four years — from 2007 through 2011. He made up one of the roughly 60 nationalities represented there.

“I loved (the International School of Havana),” the 15-year-old said. “First of all because you'd get to meet people from different nationalities, and it was your second family, so you would always feel like you're home.”

Teachers, too, come from around the world, including Morris, who is from the United Kingdom. About half of the students have passports from Western European countries, he said.

Plans to expand

The school has seen a steady growth in enrollment during the past five years, Morris said, though it also maintains a 30 percent turnover rate each year.

There are about 30 U.S. students, most of whom are the children of diplomats, currently at the school, Morris said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry talks to the
children of the U.S. Embassy of Havana at the
newly-reopened Embassy on Aug. 14, 2015.
(Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of State, 

via Wikimedia)
The six-story tall building that now bears the name “U.S. Embassy” was, until recently, called the U.S. Interests Section, where visas were processed and consular duties occurred, according to NPR. Partly as a result, U.S. passport carriers have been studying at the International School of Havana for years.

Morris said the school would like eventually to grow its enrollment to 850 students, which would require additional premises, and a lot of bureaucratic deliberation with the Cuban government. The school rents its property from the Cuban agency providing housing.

“We’re in a different situation when it comes to leveraging anything quite quickly,” Morris said. “It’s quite difficult.”

As businesses, such as JetBlue Airways Corp., Pfizer Inc. and MasterCard Inc., continue to look toward Cuba to expand their operations, the only English-speaking school in the capital is still trying to assess how to most efficiently increase its student capacity, Morris said.  

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