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Miami Educators Inspect Refugee Schools in Cuba

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Nelson E. Diaz returned from his first trip to Cuba since 1961 with a promise to help the children he met there.

Mr. Diaz, an associate superintendent of instruction in the Dade County, Fla., schools, was 11 when his family fled the Communist island nation for Miami. He led a recent mission by a group of Dade educators to evaluate the makeshift schools set up for Cuban and Haitian refugee children at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay.

Roughly 25,000 refugees--including 1,300 Cuban and 300 Haitian school-age children--call the camps home, according to the U.S. Justice Department's community-relations service, which runs the schools.

The camps were set up last year when political unrest in Cuba and Haiti triggered an exodus of refugees from both countries.

Miami is a likely destination for refugees from those countries who are admitted to the United States. In 1980, some 15,000 Cuban students arrived in Dade County during the so-called Mariel boat lift. So far, the county has not seen another influx of that magnitude in such a short period, but it has prepared a plan for dealing with one. (See Education Week, July 13, 1994.)

The Dade County group included 13 Cuban-American and three Haitian-American educators, some of whom were scheduled to return to Miami late last week, Mr. Diaz said.

The educators evaluated hundreds of children at the camp to identify any special needs they may have and to help those teaching them. In the next month, the Dade officials will send federal officials their recommendations for improving the schools.

'Don't Forget Us'

What Mr. Diaz found at the camps were schools with few certified teachers, no real curriculum or grading system, and out-of-date textbooks. Students are not even required to attend school, though a spokeswoman for the community-relations service said they are highly encouraged to attend.

"There's a need to formalize education there because those minds are being wasted," Mr. Diaz said.

The Cuban children are being taught by volunteer adult refugees, among them doctors, engineers, and teachers, in a cluster of tents.

The Haitian children are being taught in the base's elementary school, once used by American families that have since been evacuated. Since most of the adult Haitians have already been sent back to their homeland, the children are being taught by French- and Creole-speaking instructors hired by federal officials.

Apart from concerns about the academic status of the children--many of whom had their schooling interrupted before ever reaching the camps--Mr. Diaz also worries about the trauma they've faced.

"They talk to you about when they left the island in rafts," he said. "They talk about the sea and the dark sky at night and the sharks."

Mr. Diaz said the children's farewell message to him was: "'When you get back to the United States, please don't forget us."'

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