Wednesday, August 18, 2010


(Miami Herald) - By Jacqueline Charles

Some leaders are seeking to use Haiti's catastrophic earthquake as an opportunity to fix a broken school system.

PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Of the 800 children born each day in this luckless Caribbean nation, only 567 are fortunate enough to eventually attend school. One of three finishes sixth grade, and just seven of that original 800 ever see the inside of a university.

And those numbers reflect the situation before the Jan. 12 earthquake wiped out or damaged 1,300 schools.

As leaders prepare to shape this quake-battered nation's rebuilding effort, proponents of education want to seize the moment to fix a broken education system.

``Poor parents pay up to half of their income to send kids to bad schools,'' said Marcelo Cabrol, the Inter-American Development Bank's chief education expert. ``It's like going to see a doctor without a license to practice.''

For months, he, New Orleans' education guru, Paul Vallas, and members of a high-level Haitian presidential commission on education have been waging a quiet debate on how to transform education in this nation where 2.5 million of the nine million people can't read or write.

At the heart of their discussions: How to ensure quality education in a country with so much inequity and so few resources -- and where 90 percent of the schools are privately run, adhering to wildly disparate standards.

Even before the quake, a million school-age Haitian children simply didn't go to school.

What they have come up with is an ambitious plan that seeks to use international aid dollars to not only subsidize the construction of new schools but also to put private schools, which are the vast majority, under state oversight.

Although the Haitian government has a spotty history as far as competent stewardship is concerned, the hope is that money can be used as a means to hold schools accountable and as a way to raise teacher salaries in a country where some household servants can make more than educators.

In exchange for funding, schools would be required to reduce classroom sizes, train and recruit quality teachers, and qualify for national certification.

The plan seeks $4.3 billion over two years, and is among dozens of projects -- including the construction of a new $15 million, 320-bed teaching hospital in the central Haiti town of Mirebalais -- that are expected to be presented Tuesday when former President Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive chair a meeting of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission.

The long-awaited meeting is supposed to provide Haitians and supporters of the country's rebuilding initiative the first real glance at how Haiti seeks to dig itself out from underneath the rubble that left an estimated 300,000 dead, an equal number injured and 1.5 million homeless.

``Wouldn't it be a great luxury to have enough schools where parents would fight to try and get their children in those schools?'' said Vallas, who is superintendent of the Recovery School District of New Orleans and serves as a consultant to the Haitian government's education commission.

``If you subsidize schools that are of higher quality, that are using the national curriculum, that have certified teachers that have higher quality instruction and that are either waiving their tuition or charging affordable tuition costs, that is where those parents will gravitate.''

Haiti's ongoing struggle with education is as visible as the boys and girls who blanket its crumbled streets in neatly pressed uniforms, walking through teeming tent cities to classrooms where chalkboards are a luxury and tarps serve as walls.

It is as visible as the donated Good Samaritan tents and battered blue tarps lining the narrow residential street in Delmas 65 where nearly two dozen teachers struggle to provide instruction in French without textbooks and over the blare of neighborhood music and crowing roosters at The Congregational School of the Glorious Cross.

Here, Sister Ectane Dorval, a petite nun whose tiny Roman Catholic order founded the school 14 years ago, receives no funding from the local archdiocese, and tuition is what parents of the 550 students can afford to give. Three months after the quake, the school reopened.

``We function on the grace of those parents who can pay,'' she said. ``Some can't pay anything. Since I am the one who agreed to walk with the poor, we take what they bring us.''

What that means is for months the school has been unable to pay its teachers who average about $75 a month, much less recruit better qualified teachers or pay the yearly $4,000 rent on its cramped classrooms inside the multi-story building or afford the $65,000 to buy a nearby vacant lot to build a new school.

``We have no choice but to remain in the streets,'' she said. ``But we can't go on like this.''

Maryse Kedar, a local entrepreneur who along with her husband, famed photographer Daniel Kedar, founded 14 ``tent schools'' and hired 135 teachers in the wake of the earthquake, said the quake offers not just an opportunity to transform the face of education in Haiti but to expand schooling to children as young as 3.

It's a move that has the support of Haiti's first lady, Elisabeth Delatour Préval, who also has been quietly pushing for more attention to be paid to early childhood education.

``If we really want to change something in Haiti today, this is the problem that we have to attack. If we attack this problem properly, in 15 years we'll have a very different country,'' Kedar said.

Kedar said her brief experience with her Kay Timoun schools has taught her that, despite all the challenges in Haiti, the country has produced some great minds. Also: that parents, many of whom are illiterate, want something better for their children.

Still the issue of government involvement in the private management of schools is a thorny one.

``Once you say in this country government and the private sector you might as well declare war because one doesn't always walk alongside the other,'' said Jacky Lumarque, rector of private Quisqueya University in Port-au-Prince and the head of the presidential commission on education and teacher training. ``We have a culture of opposition.''

But 200 years of the status quo is no longer acceptable, Lumarque said.

``The first thing we need to do as a nation is guarantee, with government funding, that all children between the ages of 5 and 12 have access to an education,'' he said.

The concept is not new, and in fact dates back to Haiti's 1816 Constitution when then-President Alexandre Pétion had it inscribed into the governing document. Years later, Pétion's successor, Jean-Pierre Boyer, would take it a step further, requiring state-financed primary education.

``Haiti was the first country in this region to pass a law making the guarantee of an education obligatory,'' Lumarque said. ``We were the first to make the demand, but we've been last in realization.''

Lumarque said there has been no shortage of plans on how to overhaul Haiti's education system, nor any dearth of presidential decrees on the constitutional right of education for all. But all of the plans have been ``unrealistic,'' he said.

``If you look at all of the country's plans over the past 15, 20 years, you see the same pattern and they all look alike,'' he said. ``The government has to put in place a system of control and evaluation.''

It also has to commit to spending more of its own money. Currently, Haiti spends 2 percent of its gross domestic product on education -- compared to the Latin American average of 5 percent -- and Lumarque would like to see Haiti's commitment increased significantly.

``It's a choice you make, if you decide education is important,'' he said. ``The decisions are not simple, but they demand decisive and radical decision making.''

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