Las Tunas, Cuba
Here in rolling countryside dotted with sugar cane and citrus fields, Cuban planners were meeting to discuss the progress of education in this eastern Cuban province. The talk was generally upbeat, as Jose Ramon Fernandez, the education minister, questioned local teachers and administrators about their schools and students. Problems that had been noted earlier - the shortage of teachers at one school, rainwater dripping into classrooms at another - had been resolved, he was told.
But the specter of another problem - which nettles educators in many nations - was mentioned: high school dropouts. One administrator admitted that this problem was becoming serious in his district and could become even larger.
''What are you doing about it?'' asked Minister Fernandez, a handsome, ramrod-tall Cuban, whose light blue guayabera (open-necked dress shirt) matched the blue in his twinkling eyes.
''We are meeting with parents,'' one school administrator said. ''A lot of responsibility for what we do falls on them to stress the importance of education to their children. We are meeting with teachers. There, too, a lot of responsibility falls on them to make the classroom vital and exciting.''
One teacher added: ''We don't have a dropout problem in our school, because, I think, we have made education so challenging and important to the young that they want to stay in school.''
The meeting lasted three hours. By nightfall, Mr. Fernandez would return to Havana by military transport. But first, there were visits to schools, talks with students and teachers, meetings with local Communist Party officials, and the dedication of yet another school with two pigtailed seven-year-olds holding his hands.
It is this sort of regular ministerial visit, with its emphasis on the study of problems and interaction among administrators, that is being repeated in each of Cuba's provinces. Mr. Fernandez believes the visits are helping improve the quality of education throughout this Caribbean island nation of nearly 10 million, where some 4 million children are in classrooms.
These young people are part of a tidal wave of Cuban youth who are getting the kind of educational opportunities denied to many in Latin America.
In a nation with limited resources, the cost of this education is high. ''But it is worth every peso,'' one Education Ministry official said. As a nation, Cuba is putting as much stress on educating youngsters as any other country in Latin America - and also on training for those already beyond normal school age, in an effort to bring literacy to all Cubans.
The education is not limited to the classroom, however; it frequently includes work in the sugar cane and citrus fields. And it is by all accounts a good educational experience, although there are problems aplenty.
Beginning in 1969, 10 years after Fidel Castro came to power, Cuba began a broad experiment in state-operated boarding schools for teen-agers in the countryside. With classrooms and dormitories built for some 500 children each, the school day is divided between studies and work in the fields. Critics suggest it is ''cheap labor.'' On the other hand, the work does have an educational component. When they become adults, many of these children will make their living in the fields.
There is, however, a great deal of ideology involved. Cuba is a Marxist state , as many of the educators and school administrators meeting with Mr. Fernandez stressed. Although overseas visitors seldom see much ideological content in the teaching, it is clearly a factor. Political indoctrination is a part of the education program, as talks with school children indicate.
That was also made clear by Minister Fernandez's meeting with party officials - a closed-door affair. Education and the Communist Party go hand in hand - and have the same mission: to train up a ''new man,'' as Cuban President Castro frequently says.
Such visits, with their private sessions, lead to much of the criticism of Cuban education by outsiders as well as by Cubans opposed to the Castro government.
Cuban statistics often suggest that Cuba leads the Spanish-speaking nations of the Western Hemisphere in the percentage of school-age children in the classroom. The more those statistics are studied, however, the less significant they seem.
In the first place, Cubans frequently compare the percentage of school-age children in school today with the number 25 years ago in pre-Castro times. There is no doubt that there has been a substantial increase. But pre-Castro Cuba was not as backward as some might suggest, nor was literacy as high as in many other Latin American lands. In 1959, Cuba ranked sixth in educational opportunity in the hemisphere. It still does.
Other Latin American countries have also made remarkable improvements in educational opportunity. Neighboring Jamaica has an equally high percentage of children in school and a similarly high literacy rate. So do Barbados, Costa Rica, and Trinidad and Tobago. Like Cuba, these small nations have put great emphasis on education during the past 25 years.
Still, there can be no mistaking the Cuban achievements in education. Most school-age children get an education, beginning with the Cuban equivalent of grammar school. But there is disagreement on the number that are enrolled in secondary or high school. Actually, many teen-agers do not go on to high school - and many others who do start eventually drop out, as Minister Fernandez heard in Las Tunas.
''There is still much to be done,'' Mr. Fernandez admitted.
Tuesday: Report from Nicaragua.