MAKESHIFT SCHOOLS IN TENT CITIES
Miami Herald, February 8, 2010
BY KATHLEEN McGRORY
With schools in Haiti's capital city closed since last month's catastrophic earthquake -- and unlikely to open for several months -- informal classes have begun springing up in the streets.
``The children are traumatized,'' said René Michel Longchamp, who gives lessons to the kids living in tents inside Haiti's national soccer stadium. ``As a teacher, I'm obligated to work with them. I want things to feel as normal as possible.''
The older children play games and read Bible verses; the youngest children review colors, shapes and numbers.
And even in the wealthy suburbs, parents are hiring out-of-work teachers to privately tutor their children for upcoming state exams.
``Our entire education system is suffering,'' said Micheline Augustin-Pierre, co-director of the collapsed Ecole Guatemala. ``It will take a long time to rebuild it.''
More than 80 percent of the 5,000 schoolhouses in Port-au-Prince were destroyed or significantly damaged in the Jan. 12 earthquake. Last week, some primary and secondary schools outside of the capital city opened their doors to students for the first time since the quake. But the Ministry of Education says schools in Port-au-Prince and other areas affected by the earthquake won't open again until March. And some educators say even that is a lofty goal.
In the meantime, makeshift schools are springing up in the encampments that shelter children and their families. Inside the national soccer stadium -- now a bustling tent city home to several hundred people -- Longchamp leads more than 60 children in daily exercises. On a recent morning, the children formed a massive circle. They lay on their bellies, pretending to swim like little fish.
``All right, my friends, let's jump up and down,'' Longchamp said, prompting the children to spring to their feet and bounce.
The teacher then invited 7-year-old Celena Chehe into the center of the circle, and asked her to recite a poem she had learned in school.
``Father Christmas, bring me a doll and something for my brother,'' the girl sang in her tiny voice, before curtsying and returning to her place in the circle.
The other children cheered.``I am happy that we have school again,'' Celena said. ``It's fun.''
In the camp at the Saint-Louis de la Gonzague school, the little children sat in a circle on the blacktop, singing songs their teachers had taught them before the earthquake. Adults stood around, clapping and offering encouraging words.
Experts say the children of Haiti need continuity and stimulation in the aftermath of the quake, the worst natural disaster in the nation's history. The hundreds of thousands of kids not attending makeshift school are at risk of getting involved in gangs, or finding adults who might exploit them.
What's more, Haitian children have to take the national exams in June. The Ministry of Education has yet to decide if the tests will be administered this year, but some parents want their children to be ready anyway.
Already, eight parents have asked teacher Donald Dorcella to tutor their children. Dorcella is now planning to open an informal private school in Pétionville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince.
``My job is to do whatever I can to keep our children educated,'' he said.
Dorcella said he will teach basics: math, science, French literature and social sciences. But he knows he will have to take a new approach to keep the children engaged in their studies, given what they have witnessed.
Some of the youngsters seem to be without hope. ``They don't see the point of their studies,'' Dorcella said. ``I have to make it fun for them.''
He plans to include popular movies, jokes and songs in his curriculum. He will also include Bible studies for at least 30 minutes a day, he said.
Still, other wealthy and middle-class parents are choosing to send their children to schools in the nearby Dominican Republic and Florida.`
`It's like a mini-exodus,'' said Bernard Brutus, a Port-au-Prince physician whose kids are attending school in Orlando. ``We don't know when school will open.''