HAVANA – At the Dora Alonso school for autistic children there are 58 students and 57 teachers. The school is bright, colorful and clean. It is in the middle of a campus full of schools. Once an army garrison during the dictatorial rule of Fulgencio Batista, the campus is now a living symbol of beating swords into ploughshares.

The young children and their teachers join hands in a big circle and dance to the rhythmic Cuban music. They end the outdoor dance session, surrounded by the lush tropical trees, and go inside for classes.

The school is equipped with computers to help speech-language acquisition, and classroom televisions are tuned to the Cuban educational channel. Physical therapists use combinations of massage therapies and equipment. I see a balance beam, mats, balls and a small treadmill.

The music room has drums, a piano, a tape and CD player, maracas and other instruments. The kids are playing rhythm sticks and the teacher is counting out loud. They stop when we come in. The teacher asks them to sing “Guantanamera,” which they do while she plays the piano.

Each class has a mirror. “Very important to have a mirror in each classroom, so the child develops a sense of self,” says Lorenzo Jorge Sosa, the school’s director. One of the students in the music room stops and stares at himself for a minute or so.

The classrooms have books, toys, brightly colored pictures and the children’s artwork. Each child has his or her own box of personal items with their photo on it, something that reminds me of my own children’s early years.

A behavioral psychiatrist is with one child who cannot sit still. The boy does not talk. The psychiatrist is working with him, one-on-one, to increase his ability to sit still and have eye contact as well as acquire language. Sitting next to her is a small, friendly dog. “Children often respond to the dog more than to people,” she says.

“This is not Cuba’s first school for autism, but it does have a unique program,” Sosa says. “Our school has medical professionals on staff, and works closely with doctors and other specialists. We work with the families and community to provide support and training. Our emphasis is to integrate the children into wider society as a whole. We have the duty to improve the children’s quality of life.”

Oh, and have I mentioned this? Everything is free of charge.

Home comes to mind again, but not because of the similarities. The words “free of charge” hit me hard.

Parents of U.S. school children with autism or other disabilities have to pay out-of-pocket for many services. If your child is in a U.S. public school, special education services are supposed to be adequate and free, a hard-won right. But as many parents, teachers and administrators know, these services are expensive and the school’s other budget needs often compete. The federal government funds only 15 percent of special education costs, not the once promised 40 percent, and private schools are prohibitively expensive.

Cuban President Fidel Castro attended the opening of the Escuela Dora Alonso in 2002. Castro told the audience that there are about 600 million disabled people worldwide and less than 3 percent receive some kind of attention. “In our country,” he said, “we have fought for and, fortunately, succeeded in providing attention for all children with problems.”

I can’t imagine our current president advocating for children. As a matter of fact, George W. Bush’s policies have been a disaster for public education and children.

This is just a snapshot of the revolution in public education taking place in Cuba. Imagine a country that faces severe economic, political and social conditions, most of them imposed by the U.S. blockade – yet is, as a society, working to truly “leave no child behind.”

I get emotional thinking about the possibilities in the U.S. No wonder there are so many barriers to travel to Cuba, I think: Americans may start to get socialist ideas for home.

I told the staff how moved I was by the school. And how great it would be to have more Americans be able to go to Cuba and have cooperative, neighborly relations.

But then I also think about the U.S. blockade and the new restrictions imposed by the Bush administration. Another emotion takes over. This time it’s anger.

Terrie Albano is the editor of the People’s Weekly World. She recently traveled to Cuba as part of a Communist Party delegation.
This article is part of a series based on that visit. She can be reached at talbano@pww.org.