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Directs National Superintendents Roundtable, a learning organization of 100 school superintendents from 30 states.

Farming (organic and other) in Viñales Valley

A highlight of the day was the opportunity to tour an organic farm, an award-winning family enterprise overlooking the scenic Viñales alley. The first of its kind in Cuba, the farm has won national awards for excellence and pioneered many of the techniques now common to organic farming across the country.

We toured the farm and enjoyed lunch outside a handsome home perched on a hillside overlooking the valley. Below we see pictures of the home, parts of the farm, a handsome goat who practically posed for pictures, coffee beans on a tree and the Roundtable delegation at lunch, presided over by el padron Frank Hewins.


Then it was on to a large tobacco farm. In one of the drying and curing houses (below), Ivan hand-rolled a cigar in front of us and then offered packages of 10 cigars for $10 (Cuban)

We finished off our visit to Viñales with a visit to a scenic overlook, where a group photo was followed by several of us gawking at a massive Brahma bull, outfitted for riding, who eyed us without interest.


En route to Viñales Valley

Monday dawned bright and early and off on a 2.5 hour bus ride to Viñales Valley, considered by many to be the most beautiful spot in Cuba.

  En route our tour guide Christopher provided a tour de force lecture on the Cuban economy. Christopher, who started his university career in nuclear physics, switched to modern languages and the depth and breadth of knowledge he displayed was impressive.

We listened with great interest as Christopher proceeded through a stream of consciousness monologue. Among the highlights that he passed on:

  • La Luché is a phenomenon across Cuba and across all occupations. With monthly income restricted by government policy to $25 (US) per person, everyone (from brain surgeons to laborers) needs a second source of income, either a job or something they can profit from. Lawyers work as waiters in the evening and petty graft and reliance on tipping is commonplace.
  • Sugar cane (for rum), tobacco, and coffee beans are the principal agricultural products. The government takes and markets 90% of farmers’ crops, leaving 10% for farmers to sell themselves.
  • Agricultural productivity lags far behind that of the United States. A Cuban acre produces perhaps one quarter of what an acre in the United States produces, a function of limited technology and know how.
  • Although the American embargo limits investment in technology and equipment, a second serious effect of the embargo is the “internal embargo,” a mindset of excuses in which many economic challenges that could be addressed are dismissed as insoluble because of the embargo.

The embargo is a result of a Congressional enactment and was not lifted when President Obama resumed relations with Cuba in 2014.

Classic U.S. Cars from the 1950s

While most members of the group admired old Havana, a certain male demographic drooled over the classic American cars of the 1950s.

Below, in order, we have a 1957 Dodge Desoto, a 1954 Mercury (the greatest car of the ‘50s!), a  1957 Chevrolet, and (in order from right to left) a parade of classics that includes a 1953 Chevy, a two-tone 1955 Ford, and a magnificent bronze 1959 Buick, likely imported just weeks from the revolution’s takeover of Havana on December 31, 1959.

The paint on the two-tone Ford and the Buick may be original colors, if not original paint jobs. The spectacular colors on the other cars are from another era.

An afternoon touring old Havana

With the background provided by the morning lecture from Miguel Coyula, we were able to benefit greatly from an afternoon spent touring Old Havana with the help of a knowledgeable guide named Ana, the daughter of prosperous Havanans, each of whom, she told us, had welcomed Castro’s revolution.

One of the stunning sites in Havana is a 5-mile seawall and promenade known as the Malecón. The United States built it following the takeover of Cuba after the Spanish-American War of 1898. It’s purpose: to protect Havana from the ravages of the Caribbean, but it has created a beautiful boulevard for promenades.

Tim Grieves was the only member of the group wearing approved Roundtable head gear. He stands beside the excavated remains (known as an architetectural witness) of the original 16th century walls that surrounded Havana.

Havana is home to magnificent squares. The Plaza de Cathedral is dominated by the cathedral and surrounded by spectacular old homes with courtyards cool and inviting, even in tropical heat.

A 16th-century fort is one of three dominating the bay.

An old church dedicated to St. Francis, dominates San Francisco Square, a major port of entry in Havana. Dedicated as a Catholic Church, when the English conquered Havana in the 18th-century and held Church of England services here for 10 months, the Spanish on re-occupying the city, never used it as a Catholic church again. The Duke of Albemarle’s grandson asked permission to be married in a Church of England Ceremony recently and was able to do so.

Next: The Classic Cars of Havana

Havana’s Colonial Histroy

Havana is a city rich in history and 500 years of tradition. It has played a central role in Cuba’s history, starting about 100 years after Columbus first landed on the island.

It had the first running water and cisterns in North America, dating back to the 16th century. Became an important center of the slave trade, including nearly 250,000 of its own slaves busy cultivating sugar cane, the heart of Havana’s economy well into the 20th century.

Our day started with a fascinating lecture on Havana’s development from city planner Miguel Coyula. The city is aging historically, in terms of its infrastructure, and socially, said Coyula, below.

Most housing stock is so old (average age 80 years) that an average of 3 buildings a year simply collapse. Cuba, the original port of entry for Christopher Columbus, and Havana, it’s central city, Old home below.

From the lecture we went on to the magnificent Museum of Cuban Art, for a fascinating tour of centuries of Cuban art by art historian Nelson Herrar (center, bearded, with the group).

From there, on to a wonderful lunch at El Figaro, where visitors are encouraged to leave their mark on the walls, while the wonderful beat of Cuba-African music that surrounds you everywhere on the island accompanies your meal.

After an afternoon touring old Havana, we benefited greatly from a lecture on the Cuban economy from Giulio Ricci, an economist from the University of Havana.  Ricci informed us that the socialist experiment worked in Cuba. It produced improvements in health care, education, the arts, and sports, largely due to being a client state of the Soviet Union. But Cuba lost 85% of its foreign trade after the Soviet Union collapsed and its GDP declined 35%.

Next: an afternoon touring old Havana.

Arriving in Havana

It was a long day of flying for most of us from the West Coast, but just a short hop from Miami to Cuba, long known as one of the “Pearls of the Antilles,” where Matt from Cuba Education Travel greeted us. Below Daniel Moirao exits Jose Marti Airport, named after a 19th-century Cuban hero.

Matt then got us on a bus to the Hotel Capri, one of the famous mafiosa hotels built in the 1950s, where movie star George Raft served as a greeter. Below the group gathers in the lobby of the Capri.

Next it was off to an artist’s home and studio to admire the commitment to the arts in Cuba. We learned that every student in Cuba gets 1,000 hours of instruction in the arts every year — song, dance, and the visual arts.  The picture below of the magnificant Hotel Nacional, where Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano carved up Cuba on behalf of themselves and the brutal dictator Batista, was taken from the balcony of the artists home. The 1950s American automobiles? They have to be seen to be believed. Here we have a 1953 Chevy (hot pink) and a two-tone red and white 1957 Buick.

Then it was off to a magnificent dinner in a local private restaurant, while some brave souls ventured down the street to the Hotel Nacional to enjoy a pretty hot band.

Wrap-up: Initial Thoughts on the European Study Mission

Tired delegation members gathered at a conference center in London following 11 days of intensive study of schools in three nations to try to make sense of what they had seen. The discussion was frank, broad, and wide-ranging. While much of this remains to be worked over and thought through, several themes emerged:

First, leadership is critical. In all of the most successful schools — Bonner Primary, Barnfield Studio School, and schools in Finland, remarkable leaders led the charge. The flip side of that coin was some anxiety that progress might evaporate in the absence of the leader.

Next, a common theme across schools (from Finland to Bonner, Harrow, and Barnfield) was sense that success depended on high expectations in and around the school, support for the individual needs of each student, and the building of a sense of community. Each of these seemed to be a necessary but not sufficient condition.

The differences between the three systems was noted. Finland with a philosophy of light steering based on trust; France with much more of a commitment to managing schools from the top down; and England with a philosophy based more on competition, assessment, and choice, very much like the emphasis in the United States.

Teacher preparation, induction and mentoring and on-going professional development came in for a lot of discussion. Roundtable members were impressed with the 10 to 1 ratio of applicants for student positions in teacher training programs in Finland, and saw nothing even remotely similar in France or England.

The impact of poverty on student achievement received attention. No one believes that low-income students cannot learn, but a clear correlation between poverty and achievement has long been established. It was noted that Finland seemed to adopt an inside-outside strategy about 40 years ago — simultaneously working on essentially eliminating childhood poverty while insisting that schools needed to do their part to build a strong society.

PISA: Roundtable participants expressed genuine concern that PISA results, accepted uncritically by the press and public figures, rest on a weak technical foundation. They were particularly worried about the fact that OECD issued data on Shanghai as though it represented China and without acknowledging the culling of low-income students from Shanghai schools due to the severe limitations the city places on millions of migrant children.

There is more. Much more. In coming weeks and months the Roundtable will be digesting this extraordinary educational journey with the intent of publishing its conclusions in the next edition of  The  Superintendents Fieldbook.

Barnfield Studio School-introducing entrepreneurship into education

Luton, a large town about 30 miles north of London, is the site of the Barnfield Federation, a coalition that includes Barnfield College (16 years upwards), Barnfield South and West Academies (11-18 years), the country’s first further-education-sponsored Studio School (14-18 years enterprise academy) and Barnfield Moorlands Primary School (4-11 years). This cluster of schools and satellites around them, enrolling some 27,000 students, recreates the role of local councils in private hands.

In a fascinating and highly engaging presentation, the chief executive of the federation, Sir Peter Birkett, described a program in which Barnfield took over two under-performing schools in 2007 and in a matter of years transformed them, through charter-like approaches, to take the schools out of “special measures”(oversight by the government) to a position in which the number of satisfactory GCSE scores have more than tripled. Ofsted, the government agency responsible for accountability and standards, judges the two schools today to be “outstanding” and “good.”

Birkett described a focus on eliminating a culture of blame (of students, parents, and communities) and replacing it with a culture of high expectations, support for student needs, and a commitment to a sense of community and standards. The federation, which has made no secret of its hopes to run these schools for profit in the future if legislation permits, has created a structure in which its scale permits it to commission support services at lower cost – passing the savings on to lower class sizes and pay-for-performance schemes that provide one-time, equal, bonuses to all employees for achieving institutional goals.

The Barnfield Studio School for 14- to 18-year-olds emphasizes vocational education. The school is heavily entrepreneurial with a Principal, Mark Cronin, who is willing to make micro-loans (which have to be repaid) for any promising business plan presented by a student. One student makes and sells cookies; another has a shoe-shine business; yet a third plans to complete university studies and enter the banking industry. The school has a florist’s shop, gift shop, hair salon, and a pizza parlor attached to it — all providing students with work experience. It forges close links with local businesses in an effort to provide jobs in the retail, hospitality or service industries.

“Academy schools,” said Birkett, “were designed to turn around failing schools. Former Prime Minister Blair wanted to inject the DNA of the business world into education. We wanted to attack the blame culture and support traditional values such as hard work in a modern culture.”  Noted Cronin: “We believe that small is beautiful. One size does not fit all. We aim to really personalize instruction for each student.”

Sir Peter Birkett briefs Roundtable members on Barnfield Federation's plans

Nelda Cambron-McCabe, Paul Ash, Don Beaudette & Jerry Kohn focus on Barnfield briefing

Greg Riccio (r) thanks Mark Cronin for his presentation on the Barnfield Studio School

Diana Smalley and James Egan chat with Barnfield Studio School students

Roundtable members thank lunch staff for wonderful meal and applaud them

The Harrow School – privilege and high expectations

Another remarkable day, this one focused on a more leisurely visit to The Harrow School. With the Roundtable’s coach trapped in Harrow’s narrow streets, the delegation walked the last quarter mile to the school to be warmly greeted by Headmaster Jim Hawkins in Form 4 of the “Old School,” site of Dumbledore’s classroom in the Harry Potter movies. Engraved on Form 4’s walls are the names of generations of Harrow students, who include such luminaries as Winston Churchill, Nehru, and King Hussein of Jordan.

Harrow, is widely considered to be one of the finest secondary schools in the world. Like its rival Eton, it is an independent, boarding school for boys; it was founded under a royal charter from Elizabeth I in 1572. It enrolls 800-900 boys, all of whom board full time. Graduates are known as “Old Harrovians.” Basic annual costs at Harrow run to approximately $45,000 annually for room, board, tuition, and fees. It enrolls students who are highly privileged and very ambitious, although a bursary (scholarship) program funds the enrollment of exceptional students from distressed backgrounds.

Harrow has a rich history and tradition. Harrow’s line of famous graduates includes eight Prime Ministers, foreign statesmen, Members of Parliament, several kings and members of various royal families, and notable figures in the arts and sciences, including George Lord Byron, the Romantic poet and hero who swam the Hellespont and wrote “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” and “Don Juan,” while starring himself in the latter role.

School leaders were extraordinarily generous in their treatment of the visiting Roundtable delegation. Headmaster Jim Hawkins took the time to greet us. Old Harrovian Dale Vargas (a former housemaster at the school) led us on a fascinating historical tour. And Jesse Elzinga (director of studies) and Nick Paige (head of modern languages) hosted us at lunch and patiently answered our questions about the many facets of Harrow that make it  unique and successful. Elzinga agreed that, assuming a high degree of selectivity beginning two years before enrollment, key features at Harrow included high expectations, individualized support for students, and a genuine sense of community within the school.

Class sizes are normally limited to 15 students and more advanced classes (say in the third year of a language) typically enroll eight.

Headmaster Jim Hawkins greets Roundtable in "Fourth Form" room, site of filming for Harry Potter movies

The twin towers of the Old School

Generations of students have carved their names into the wood on the walls of the Fourth Form at Harrow

Harrow boys are required to wear official uniform, including straw boaters, when walking the streets of town

Old Harrovian Dale Vargas delights in the history of his school. Here he shows Roundtable visitors the school chapel

The great hall into which the entire student body can be crammed for performances of Shakespeare and annual renderings of the "Churchill Songs," a tradition dating back to 1941 when Winston Churchill returned to Harrow to enjoy the old school songs

Jesse Elzinga (director of studies) and Nick Paige (head of modern languages) greet James Harvey and Paul Ash

Lunch in the faculty dining room

James Harvey extends the Roundtable's appreciation for Harrow's generous hospitality to Nick Paige





Policy at 30,000 feet … and education on the ground

Monday, June 25 marked one of the busiest days in a busy itinerary across Europe. It began with two hours of briefings at the English Department of Education, behind the Parliament buildings, and ended with a visit to one of the most successful inner-city elementary schools in England, Bonner Primary in the Tower Hamlets area.

The  briefings began with a brilliant summary of the history of education in England from Sue Hackman, director of the school standards group, and continued on through detailed discussions of assessment (Tom Goldman and Jane Pierce), teacher training and evaluation (David Wright and Peter Ley), a transnational school innovation alliance (Wendy Parmley, Gowrie Ishwaran, and Nichola Barratt), school funding (Nicola Ayton and Victoria Woodcock), and charter-like free schools and academies (Rory Kennedy).

The presentations made it apparent that English school policy is driven by many of the same imperatives guiding policy in the United States, namely choice, competition, assessment, and accountability. It was also clear that the current coalition government’s policies aim to implement phonics as a primary reading strategy, eliminate middle management in municipalities by driving all funds to individual schools, institutionalize earlier assessments to track students at the age of 14, and redistribute funds from urban to rural and suburban constituencies.

One of the schools likely to lose funds is Bonner Primary in Tower Hamlets, now enjoying in excess of £8,000 per pupil annually due to the heavy concentration of low-income students in its attendance area. Many of the them are families from Bangladesh (where 50% of the population lives on a dollar a day or less) who are living 10-12 per apartment to two-room apartments (“flats”) in nearby public housing estates. Bonner Primary is internationally known for its remarkable success with a very challenging student population. “This community,” said headmaster Martin  Tune, “has more child poverty than any other area in England.” It has succeeded in raising 50% of its students to Level 5 on national standards by age 11 – a standard normally sought by age 14.

Tune described a powerfully successful effort that concentrated first on raising literacy levels, turned next to mathematics, and finally broadened the curriculum to include an emphasis on arts for all. Tune stressed that instruction is individualized, that the school supports what each student needs while assiduously avoiding labeling students as special needs, and that it builds community within the school and in the surrounding neighborhood so that parents and community leaders support the high expectations it holds for students.

Sue Hackman presents a dazzling and entertaining history of education in England, starting with Latin and Greek for "him" and singing and needlework for "her" in the 1800s

Rory Kennedy (center) having finished his discussion of free schools, Roundtable's James Harvey thanks Emely Levi (r) and Cynthia Davies (l) for their hard work in setting up the itinerary in England

Headmaster Martin Tune (red tie) welcomes Roundtable members to Bonner Primary School in Tower Hamlets, one of the poorest communities in England

The public housing "flats" (apartments) where most Bonner Primary students live

Children at Bonner Primary work collaboratively at computers.

Children deliver moving rendition of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," complete with impressive and complicated harmonics and student musical accompaniment