Opening of Cuba Reveals Lessons on Historic Transition

By DeNisco, Alison | District Administration, June 2016 | Go to article overview

Opening of Cuba Reveals Lessons on Historic Transition


DeNisco, Alison, District Administration


Improving relations with Cuba have renewed interest in educational travel for some U.S. schools this year, with teachers eager to show students a country on the cusp of historic changes.

While the U.S. government banned tourism to Cuba in 1963 at the height of the Cold War, educational travel remained legal. The United States and Cuba restored diplomatic relations in 2015 and reopened embassies in each nation.

Nearly three dozen high school students from Whitefish Bay School District outside Milwaukee travelled to Cuba in March with history teacher Riley Mewes. "We wanted to go now and experience Cuba before it changes too much, and get to be part of this healing process between the two nations," Mewes says.

On the trip, planned through student travel group Education First, students toured historic Cuban sights, including the city of Havana. They also met artists and musicians, played baseball with locals, and visited schools and an organic farm. Some of these interactions were not part of the itinerary, but happened organically in the streets and plazas, Mewes says. "We got a unique window into Cuban life," Mewes says.

The improved international relationship was also on display, he adds: American flags and photos of President Barack Obama were plentiful, and Cubans embraced the students once they learned they were American.

Another group of students from Aspen School District in Colorado also traveled to Cuba in March, arriving days after Obama concluded a visit. High school social studies teacher Gretchen Calhoun planned the trip with the travel company Cuba Explorer.

Students absorbed the music, art and architecture of Havana, and visited a school and a tobacco plantation. The students were fascinated by the 1950s cars driven in Havana (foreign vehicle imports had been banned) as well as the workings of the government, Calhoun says. …

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