Haitian children return to newly opened schools

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 5.30am, two hours
earlier than usual to get to Collège Catts Pressoir, a private school in the
middle-class neighbourhood 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
re-launching 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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