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Inside Guantánamo

Despite hardship, teachers achieve excellent results at little-known U.S. schools in Cuba.

By John Rosales

It was Educator’s Day in the fall of 2009 at the detention facilities at the U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Military officials hosted an open house at the world’s most famous prison for arguably the world’s least known group of public school teachers.

“Yes, we do have schools here,” says teacher Wanda Robinson-Caton.

Guantánamo Bay, best known for detaining terrorist suspects after the attacks of September 11, 2001, gets a lot of media coverage, “but you hardly read anything about the good schools here,” says Donna Kemp, who went on the field trip.

“We went into an empty cell block and walked around outside,” she says.

Kemp, who has taught at Guantánamo Bay public schools since 1998, commented on the equally secure schools which also feature “small class sizes, individual attention, and good parental support.”

Lolita the iguana watches over students' arrival at Guantánamo Bay public schools.

Photo by John Rosales

The student-teacher ratio is lower than the national average and the school culture is enhanced by a military environment that stresses discipline. Add to that a high number of teachers with master’s degrees and decades of experience, and it is no surprise that Guantánamo Bay students consistently achieve high scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and are above the national average on standardized assessments.

While there may be an occasional fight between students, there is relatively no theft or vandalism. With only 10 students in the Class of 2011, Guantánamo teachers can carefully monitor student progress. No one falls between the cracks. The result: zero dropouts and a near 100 percent college admissions rate.

“We’re doing something right,” says Kemp.

Sharing the same 45-square-mile base on an isolated edge of an island with alleged bomb makers does not faze her, she adds.

“The high level of security that exists here makes it very safe for the kids,” says Kemp, whose daughter, Hayden, graduated in 2010 and is now in college. Kemp’s son, Emmett, is a ninth grader. “As a teacher and parent, I’m very happy with their progress.”

The approximately 250 students at Guantánamo are the children of military personnel, federal employees, civilian contractors, and teachers. Nearly 90 percent of bargaining unit members belong to the Guantánamo Education Association (GEA), affiliated with NEA’s Federal Education Association (FEA).

“Our members are really tuned in to the student situation on military bases,” says Chuck McCarter, FEA’s European Area Director. FEA represents more than 8,000 American educators at schools operated by the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA). “Many students are transitioning from one base school to the next, or dealing with a parent serving in Afghanistan or Iraq,” McCarter says. “Our teachers are sensitive to this type of learning environment.”

(Watch our video here)

Of the public schools located on military bases in Europe, Asia, the Pacific, and the U.S., Guantánamo is the only one on communist soil. Consequently, Guantánamo’s 5,500 residents are restricted to the base.

Students like Emmett Kemp enjoy time at the beach, sporting events, and visiting friends at one of the dozen suburban-like neighborhoods on base. Most of the base is centered on the bay, with the east and west sides connected by a ferry. The detainee camp is located miles away from the residential area.


Elementary students attend a lesson at an outdoor amphitheater.

Photo by: John Rosales

About 100 students attend the middle/high school (7th through 12th grades). Recently remodeled, the school features a gymnasium, outdoor track, computer labs, and Internet access in all classrooms. High school English teacher Dawn Going taught at Guantánamo in the mid-1990s and then in Europe before returning in 2005.

“Everyone knows everyone,” says Going, whose husband, Mike, is also a teacher on base. “We don’t have all the choices at the grocery store you do in the states, but we have all that we need.”

W.T. Sampson Elementary School (two miles from the middle/high school) has about 150 students from preK through sixth grade. On first glance it is Any School USA—with playgrounds, a gymnasium, and cafeteria. Take another look and there is a large outdoor auditorium surrounded by palm trees set against rugged hills covered in cacti and thick brush. Iguanas, chickens, deer, and exotic birds are common.

Guantánamo is America’s oldest continuously functioning overseas base, established in 1903. The schools were built in 1931 and are the oldest in operation under the Department of Defense. When President Obama talks about closing Guantánamo, he is referring to the prison, not the base, which is needed to provide logistical support to U.S. military operations in the Caribbean.

In addition to water sports, most residents have access to free first-run movies, restaurants (from McDonald’s to O‘Kelly’s Irish Pub), chapel worship services (15 types), and live entertainment. These amenities are designed in part to compensate for the hardship of living on an isolated island hard to reach by air or water. For teachers, there is also the burden of containing wildlife on campus and coping with weather-beaten buildings with leaky roofs and old plumbing.


The approximately 250 students at Guantánamo are the children of military personnel, federal employees, civilian contractors, and teachers.

Photo by: John Rosales

“When I arrived here, I said to myself, ‘Oh God, what have I done,’” said Robinson-Caton, a preK teacher who has taught at U.S. bases in Japan and Bahrain. Outside her classroom, she points to a two-foot wide urine spot on the sidewalk left by a rodent.

“Wildlife leave droppings everywhere,” she says. “It’s a sanitation issue.”

While the northern tip of Cuba is only 90 miles from Florida, Guantánamo is located on the far south side of the island, opposite from Havana and more than 500 miles south of Miami. Flights to and from the island are expensive (about $500 roundtrip to Ft. Lauderdale) and infrequent.

“My mom and sons can’t visit too often,” says Robinson-Caton. “You miss a lot of holiday and family celebrations back home.” 

On his visit to the base, McCarter met with GEA members in the school library and heard plenty about the family hardships and challenging lifestyle on base.

“Teachers take the good with the bad,” he says. “It’s no picnic here, but the military try their best to make it comfortable.”

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