The children of Maryland International Day School had been imagining what Cuba would look like, how warm it would be, whether its classrooms would resemble their own.
After waiting — and planning — for weeks for the big trip, they packed their school uniforms and headed to Havana on Friday: 26 children, ages 5 to 13, from a small private Spanish immersion school in Prince George’s County. They expect to take classes with Cuban students, make friends with them, learn by blending in — hoping to experience Cuba in a way few Americans have in decades.
Esther VanDeCruze Donawa, the school’s head and founder, says that Cuban officials told her that the trip, with its time spent in classes, would be a first for a U.S. K-12 school.
“We’re going to be famous one day!” said Zora Chatman, 7.
The students traveled to Cuba on the heels of President Obama’s historic visit to the island nation just south of Florida, the first time a sitting U.S. president has traveled there in more than 80 years. American curiosity in Cuba is surging as the country increasingly becomes accessible to U.S. citizens.
“It’s really important that we’re going right after him, even though I would like that we went at the same time,” said Danielle White, 11.
The students’ week-long journey included parents, teachers and a few siblings — 56 people in all — and is expected to traverse three of Cuba’s 15 provinces. On Sunday, the children played baseball in Matanzas with Cuban students, with both countries’ national anthems playing before the game. The Maryland children handed out baseball cards and hats donated by the Washington Nationals.
The children are slated to spend their longest stretch in a classroom Monday, in Cardenas, at what officials call the Elián González school — named for the child who was once at the center of a custody battle between Cuban and U.S. relatives. They plan to use the Spanish they have learned in Maryland.
“We want them to be part of the class, true immersion,” Donawa said.
Students from the Fort Washington school previously have gone to the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Costa Rica, attending classes while they visited, as a way to challenge themselves with the language they are learning.
The idea to travel to Cuba began to take greater shape after Rosemari Mealy, grandparent of a former student, invited Donawa to be part of a people-to-people exchange last summer, she said. Donawa traveled to Cuba again in November.
The trip has been a source of wonder for the children.
They learned about Cuba’s history and culture, eliciting fascination about vintage cars, Cuban hero José Martí and author Ernest Hemingway.
As their departure approached, they packed warm-weather clothes and favorite books and cameras.
“I’m excited about getting to meet interesting and intelligent Cuban kids that are my age,” said Kenyatta Holman, 13. Kedar Hudson, 11, said the research he had already done on the country would become more meaningful in person. “I expect to learn more about the history about Cuba,” he said.
The Obama administration announced new rules in March that ease the U.S. embargo against Cuba and allow more Americans to visit, though trips purely for tourism are not yet permitted.
The March action is the latest in a string of changes since late 2014, when Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced that the countries would normalize relations.
U.S. officials said that they do not comment on travel by specific private organizations, and Cuban officials could not be reached last week.
The age of the students involved sets the visit apart, as would significant time in Cuban classes, said Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel, which has worked with 40 U.S. schools to bring teenagers to Cuba. School visits usually involve a tour and a meeting with students outside of class time, he said.
“It’d be unique if they are spending a full day in a classroom with Cubans,” he said.
The Maryland school group — hosted by the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples — was scheduled to attend a dolphin show, visit a community arts project and museums, and learn about history, civics and science.
The children plan to share their own talents, too, in a performance scheduled for their last night, in Havana: They have been practicing salsa, merengue and bachata, styles of dance already part of their school life.
Seventh-grader Jackson Adams, 13, said he felt a sense of responsibility to other U.S. students who might want to follow the Maryland group. “We have to do our best to make sure that other schools can go to Cuba as well,” he said.
Some of his classmates voiced ideas about how Cuban classrooms might look: big, small, desks in a row, children in uniforms.
Kisha Hudson, mother of Eden, 9, and Kedar recalled that Cuba intrigued her when she was in elementary school, and she wrote a letter to then-President Fidel Castro. She said her interest in the nearby communist nation has come full circle with her children’s visit and thought the trip would help improve the students’ Spanish and widen their outlook.
“I think it’s important for them to understand there are other ways of living,” she said, “to have a perspective on other parts of the world and different cultures.”
Arelis Hernández contributed to this report.