Cuba's state education monopoly is increasingly sharing space with private operators, including churches and teachers working as tutors, which are filling in gaps and providing knowledge that has become necessary as a result of the country's economic reforms, such as business management courses.
"School is not enough these days," said Raiza Martinez, the mother of a 13-year-old girl. "Sometimes a teacher does not know how to reach students or does not teach the subject well. I had to look for support from [private] tutors."
"It wasn't like that in my day. You used to get a very good education in [public] school," said Martinez, a 48-year-old resident of Havana.
"Now the material conditions in classrooms are good, and they are receiving the scheduled classes. But there are fewer excellent teachers than there were before [the crisis]", lamented Martinez, who works two jobs.
Her daughter, Patricia, meets twice a week with her tutor, a retired teacher, to review her class work. Also twice weekly, she attends a small private academy in the Vedado neighbourhood that has been providing English classes for almost 20 years.
Another mother, Ania Porro, helps her son with "most of his classes", she says. "My help was enough while he had good teachers in elementary school. Now that he is in secondary school, where there is a lack of consistency and a shortage of teachers, I had to put him in private English and math classes," she said.
Cuba's public and completely cost-free education system has not recovered the quality that it lost following the start of the economic crisis in the 1990s, which brought a gradual deterioration of infrastructure and an exodus of teachers to better-paying industries such as tourism.
In the present school year, 1.84 million students are enrolled in primary and secondary schools, and 200,000 are enrolled in university in this country of 11.2 million people, which has a markedly ageing population.
Improving facilities and recuperating excellence in education is a slippery goal for authorities, despite more rigorous teacher training and a redistribution of available personnel.
'Results not visible yet'
The most critical situation is found in Havana. This year, the nation's capital hired 3,069 teachers from other provinces, mostly for secondary education. Other provinces with teacher shortages include Matanzas, Artemisa, Mayabeque, Camaguey and Ciego de Avila, according to Education Minister Ena Elsa Velazquez.
In contrast, Pinar del Rio, Las Tunas, Santiago de Cuba, Granma and Guantanamo have plenty of staff, enabling teachers with poor performance to enrol in full-time re-training courses.
Not all of the results are visible yet, because it's not something that changes from one day to the next.
"Not all of the results are visible yet, because it's not something that changes from one day to the next," Velazquez told local news outlets on December 16. For now there are no plans to resort to rapid training courses, such as the "Emerging Teachers" programme that ensured the necessary number of teachers in 2000.
Meanwhile, families who can afford it - and others who make sacrifices - are hiring private tutors.
The job of tutor was authorised in 2010 as a self-employment activity, although active public school teachers are forbidden from working as tutors. Since the mid-1990s, authorities have issued licenses for teachers of stenography, typing and languages.
Some enterprising persons transform their homes into classrooms and others go to students' homes. Fees vary from 10 to 50 Cuban pesos ($0.40-$2) per class.
The average monthly salary paid by the state - which employs most of the workforce - is $19. Some tutors promote their services on websites for classified ads, such as Porlalivre and Mil Clases. In October, employment offices reported 1,023 private tutors among a total of 444,000 self-employed workers.
That same month, the official Granma newspaper reported that many teachers at public schools and other professionals are offering services in violation of the law.
Churches have not been left behind in this opening up of the education sector. Religious schools disappeared in 1961, two years after the revolution, when education was completely taken over by the state.
But in the early years of the economic depression, churches opened a window with courses on non-religious themes to meet local needs.
About 500 young people climb a steep hill every week to the La Salle Centre in the 10 de Octubre municipality. Managed by the Catholic order of Brothers of the Christian Schools, for the last 15 years the centre has been offering certificates to meet the new needs of the labour market.
"The teachers are very good, and they instil a set of values in us that you don't find elsewhere," said Andy Morera. The young man wears a cross around his neck and a Yoruba - an Africa-based religion - bracelet on his wrist. "I've taken several courses in English. I'm a dedicated student," he said.
English classes for young people and children, small and medium business management, computers, executive management, and human values training are the courses offered by this centre, directed by Aurelio Gomez, who is known as Brother Martín. "The demand is too much for us to meet," he said.
Workshops for English and private business ownership, with 150 students, are the most popular. In 2014, the centre will add prep courses for university entrance exams, because "people ask for them often", he said.
A similar institution exists in Santiago de Cuba, 847 kilometres east of Havana. The centres are financed by tuition, which is about 25 Cuban pesos ($1) a month. "We give free summer courses for the lowest-income people in the community," he said.
"In recent times, we've seen all of the dioceses making an effort to contribute to education," said Orlando Marquez, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Havana. Currently there are several educational initiatives being carried out by the country's 11 dioceses, some of them free.
These initiatives included tutoring, language, computers, graphic design, teacher training, preschool, and business management courses.
The Christian Centre for Reflection and Dialogue in Cuba has designed workshops for the growing private sector since 2011. This evangelical institution has trained more than 100 entrepreneurs in Cardenas, in western Cuba.
Its workshops on subjects such as agriculture, environment, gender, sexuality, marriage and family life attracted 1,435 people this year; 935 of them were affiliated with one religion or another, and 500 of them were not.
A version of this article was first published by Inter Press Service news agency.