Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

In key step toward normalcy, classes begin in Haiti

By Jacqueline Charles and Trenton Daniel, Miami Herald

Some schools in Port-au-Prince have re-opened — the latest sign the region is finding a semblance of normalcy.

PORT-AU-PRINCE — Some arrived in brightly colored uniforms, others in street clothes without book bags.

After weeks of idle time, sleeping in tents or damaged homes, thousands of eager students returned to school Monday as Haitian authorities officially resumed the start of classes in this quake-battered capital.

“Everything’s different,” said Conrad Martin, 14. “All my study habits are different.”

Martin awoke at 5:30 a.m., two hours earlier than usual to get to Collège Catts Pressoir, a private school in the middle-class neighborhood of Bourdon. His home in Canape Vert was destroyed, and he and his parents now live in cramped quarters with his older sister.

The Haitian government has made relaunching schools one of its top priorities, but has struggled to do so since the Jan. 12, 7.0-magnitude earthquake flattened hundreds of classrooms in Port-au-Prince and other cities.

On Monday, neither government nor international officials could say how many classrooms had opened as planned with the support of humanitarian groups. But the day marked the start of a gradual — and uphill — process that officials hope will restore a sense of normalcy.

“We’re not expecting every school to open today and every child to go back to school today,” said Edward Carwardine, a spokesman for UNICEF, which is distributing tents and latrines to damaged schools. “It will take a few days, a few weeks, to get everything in order.”

School buildings were among the structures most devastated by the earthquake. A post-disaster assessment said it will take $914 million to relaunch the education system.

The money, however, is a small fraction of what it will take to permanently fix Haiti’s beleaguered education system, which requires poor parents to pay the bulk of their earnings for decrepit, unregulated private schools that offer no guarantee of a basic education.

In a sign that education is a critical component of Haiti’s rebirth, Haitian President René Préval devoted most of his opening remarks at last week’s International Donors Conference in New York to the subject, telling foreign aid donors that there cannot be “any development without education.”

`LET US DREAM’

“Let us dream of a new Haiti whose fate lives in a new . . . society without exclusion, without hunger, in which everyone has access to decent shelter, healthcare that they need, and good education,” he told donors.

But achieving that remains one of Haiti’s biggest challenges, even as lenders such as the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank devise plans to develop quality education in a country where only about 53 percent of those over the age of 15 can read and write.

Officials on the ground are hoping to have a better picture of the immediate reality in coming days.

“After 15 days or a month, we hope to see all schools open,” said Pierre Michel Laguerre, general director for the Ministry of National Education.

The schools’ official reopening date had been pushed back several times, and authorities are still struggling even to open schools that suffered little or no damage, such as a prestigious private high school in the city of Delmas.

Officials at Saint Louis de Gonzague say they want to resume classes by Monday. But they must first evict thousands of displaced people who transformed the grounds into a crowded tent settlement. The mayor of Delmas convinced several thousand camp dwellers to leave, but others threatened violence, saying they have no place to go.

QUAKE DAMAGE

In the quake-damaged Collège Catts Pressoir, teachers Monday morning urged students to talk about how the quake affected them. A maintenance man dusted a collection of volleyball trophies. The private school lost eight classrooms and a chemistry lab, as well as a teacher. It also lost electricity and must now power the place with a generator.

Though almost half of the 800 students between the first and 13th grades have yet to return — about 35 percent because they left for the United States — the classrooms remain full because of less space. Younger students sit at wooden desks in six newly constructed classrooms that together resemble a small hangar.

“We’re trying to make this as `normal’ as possible for the students,” said Jean Jacky Louis Jeune, a math and physics teacher.

School officials say they built the temporary classrooms with money they raised themselves.

Like so many schools in Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas, College Catts Pressoir’s students must do their homework in one of the 500-plus makeshift settlements that have sprung up around the capital. School officials estimate that 20 to 25 percent of their students reside in camps.

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