Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Haiti’s fragile schools reopening after quake

By Catherine Porter

Education system’s routine helpful to survivors, aid worker explains

CROIX-DES-BOUQUETS, HAITI – After three months of misery, pure joy greets me through the metal gates of Fleur de Chou primary school. Hundreds of little girls sing, louder, louder, LOUDER, and bounce like balls, the white ribbon bows in their hair flapping.

They dance between little wooden desks placed on the foundation of their old school and shielded by the blistering sun by white tent ceilings.

Are they singing for me, I wonder, as the song subsides. But then a teacher stands up in the sea of beige tartan uniforms, and they start again – a new song, more dancing, hundreds of little arms waving and shoes springing.

In the suburbs of Port-au-Prince, where men continue the exhausting task of taking down the towers of rubble on every corner and families watch water seep through their tents at night during the rains, visiting one of the newly-opened schools is like going to a spa. Total rejuvenation. The Jan. 12 earthquake leveled one in five schools in the greater area, according to Haiti’s director of secondary schools. Most of the others were badly damaged. The few untouched remained empty, as children and their parents were too frightened to step back inside.

That’s meant three long months of nothing to do, but mourn and worry for most kids.

The Haitian government called an end to that this week. It declared the school term reopened, and extended it by three months into August. About 800 of this city’s 5,000 schools have reopened, but not inside, and not without Herculean efforts.

One of this school’s two buildings collapsed, and cracks riddled the other. After parent after parent beseeched her to restart classes, director Marie Florrie Dorestan called the mayor’s office for help. Promises were made, she says. No help arrived.

So, a month and a half ago, she hired a 40-person crew to remove rubble and salvage what furniture and equipment was left. It cost her about $8,300 US —more than a police officer’s annual salary.

“I’m helping my country in the way I can,” she says, a few blocks away in a large walled park, where she is attending a three-day seminar for school staff on getting past the earthquake. She learned about plate tectonics and building techniques to withstand them from a geologist and engineer. A psychologist led deep breathing and visualization sessions for stress. Tomorrow, a psychiatrist is coming.

“You can’t change what happened but you can change the way you remember it,” says Brice Saintil, Haiti’s technical advisor for education with Plan International that sponsored the sessions.

One of the most important ways to heal, he says, is to get back into a routine. That’s why schools are so essential.

Directors also tell me they hope the new Haiti will boast a better education system.

Before the earthquake, only every other Haitian kid went to school, and most dropped out by age 8. Education is a luxury most parents can’t afford. Although the constitution calls for free access to education, 85 per cent schools here are private – charging $150 US a year, which when you are living on less than $2 a day, is too much.

Today, most of the schools that reopened are running on nothing.

“It’s very difficult. Their parents don’t have money. I can’t add to their worries. It’s not easy,” says Lagrenade Layes, director of La Renaissance, a little primary and middle school in Delmas now operating under a tarp provided by Save the Children in the courtyard. He sold his taptap to pay the teachers salaries for the first month. How will he pay them next month?

“I don’t know,” he says, looking over at his students playing with balloons left by a local clown troupe touring the schools. “I have hope that we will be saved.”

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