A refuge of hope in Haiti

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – In mid-October, when fresh-faced girls in starched uniforms skipped through the gates of the College Classique Feminin to start the first post-earthquake school year, their desire to seek sanctuary inside was palpable.

Dashing off a street clogged with vendors hawking car mats and phone chargers, they reconnected with hugs and squeals. They cheered the absence of the stifling tents in which they studied last spring. And they all but embraced an administrator’s warning that strict discipline would be reinstated after a lax period when “we all were traumatized.”

Still, nothing felt normal. The school’s door bore a frightening scarlet stamp, slapped there by government engineers who consider it unsafe. The semi-collapsed central building loomed menacingly over eight portable classrooms that clearly would not fit 13 grades. And the all-girl student body had dwindled to almost half its pre-disaster enrolment.

When the opening bell rang, the students formed neat lines in the dusty courtyard. In a rousing rendition of the national anthem, they sang, “For the country, for our forefathers, let us march united.” Then Chantal Kenol, a director, raised a bullhorn.

“We’re postponing the start of classes until next week,” she announced, explaining more repairs were needed and acknowledging this was “not good news.” Freezing briefly, the students erupted in moans. One voice rang out: “No, not good news! Not at all, not at all!”

A new plan for reforming Haiti’s weak educational system envisions a publicly funded network of privately managed schools, similar to what has developed in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. It calls for subsidies to and accreditation of the nonpublic schools that educate some 82 percent of Haitian students.

But, like the College Classique Feminin (known as CCF), many independent schools are in danger of collapsing financially before such a public-private partnership can be realized. They are struggling to reopen and stay open, to rebuild, and to retain student students and teachers.

Forty-six years after its founding, CCF, a once-elite school catering to lower-middle-class girls who aspire to be the doctors, engineers and teachers of Haiti’s future, is fighting for its life. So are many other battered institutions, from hospitals to universities, during this limbo period before reconstructions begins.

“You have to be really determined right now,” said Marie Alice Craft, another CCF director. “If you’re not, the whole thing will fall apart, and we can’t allow that to happen. The adults are exhausted, but these kids deserve a future. We can’t let CCF fail, just like we can’t let Haiti fail.”

THE NEED TO REFORM

In the first week of October, Haiti’s reconstruction commission approved a $500 million Inter-American Development Bank project to reconstruct the education sector. That same week, the back-to-school date of October 4 proved little more than “symbolic,” as Pierre Michel Laguerre, the Education Ministry’s director general, put it.

With thousands of schools damaged or destroyed, hundreds of temporary replacements were still being built by UNICEF, the government, the Digicel Foundation and others. Schools had to be cleared of rubble and of displaced people; families had to scrape together money for uniforms and fees.

Neighbourhood by neighbourhood, students returned gradually to schools that possessed “the same deficits as before the earthquake – and then some,” said Jacky Lumarque, rector of Quisqueya University.

Before the earthquake, Haiti’s education system was, at worst, inaccessible – with half the primary school-age children not in school – and at best “mediocre,” as a presidential commission on education said. “Many people called teachers and many places called schools were in fact not,” said Mohamed Fall, UNICEF’s education chief here.

After the earthquake, longtime advocates for education reform, like Lumarque, saw an opportunity. From May through July, a presidential commission drafted a $4.2 billion five-year plan for overhauling prekindergarten through university.

Previously, the commission had resisted accepting the nonpublic schools as a linchpin, but the moment demanded pragmatism.

Haiti’s plan calls for subsidizing nonpublic schools to eliminate or reduce tuition. This was happening before the earthquake on a very limited basis, but its reach would expand greatly and the schools would undergo an increasingly rigorous certification process. Also, large disaster-proofed schools would be built, teacher training programs established and the 50-year-old national curriculum modernized.

Shortly after the January 12 earthquake, CCF’s four directors ventured into the heart of Port-au-Prince to find out what had befallen their beloved school.

Inside CCF, the media centre where girls usually waited at the end of the day was crushed. So was the administrative office where Fabienne Rousseau, the director for discipline whom the girls call either “the red light” or “the immigration officer,” often stayed late to work. The women peered through the gate and trembled.

The women, two pairs of sisters, had inherited the school’s leadership from their mother and aunt. After surveying the destruction, they drove straight to one of the founder’s houses. Elegant and regal with a nimbus of white hair, the founder, Renee Heraux, 77, greeted the women with a home remedy for distress. One by one, she fed them spoonfuls of a sugar cane syrup concoction.

Heraux had not been willing to check out the damage with her own eyes. “To see an oeuvre of 46 years that was destroyed in a few seconds – ah, no, that is too much to bear,” she said, her voice breaking.

CHOICES AND SACRIFICES

Marie Patricia Jean-Gilles, a receptionist at the Ministry of Justice, spends more than a third of her $325 monthly paycheck to send her daughter, Caroline Begein, to CCF. Jean-Gilles said she was determined to provide Caroline, 15 and in 11th grade, a chance “to soar above her origins.” Jean-Gilles said she did not make it to 11th grade until 22, at which point she got pregnant, dropped out and lost her husband to liver disease. From then on, Jean-Gilles has been singularly devoted to her daughter, sending her to the best school she could find.

A poised, outgoing girl, Caroline has absorbed her mother’s faith in education – “when you go to school, you tether your head securely to your shoulders,” Caroline says – and appreciates her sacrifice.

In March CCF, its records lost, worked to track down students, one phone call leading to the next and finally to a parents’ meeting in the wrecked school yard.

Nobody ventured inside to see the startling images: a demolished primary classroom with a teddy bear in clown suit still intact; a tangle of colourful desks violently tossed on a bed of chopped concrete; an assignment from January 12 etched on a blackboard.

Jean Wener Jacquitte, whose daughter Meghann, 15, died in their collapsed house, attended the meeting partly to revisit one of her favourite places. “I also wanted to tell them in person that Meghann was gone,” Jacquitte said, staring at a picture of her on his cell phone.

The directors felt overwhelmed by the parents’ determination to start over.

Some schools tried to recover fees for the three months when they were closed. CCF did not. As a result, the directors did not pay their staff – or themselves – for those months, which upset many teachers.

In April, the directors gathered the students for a week of group therapy, led by Craft, a psychologist. In the tents that would serve as their classrooms, the girls stood in circles, clasped hands and reintroduced themselves.

“My name is Caroline Begein, and I survived the earthquake of January 12,” began Caroline, who then coaxed a classmate trembling with tears to follow.

SUSTAINING A LEGACY

Eight of 18 10th-graders, including Caroline and Medjina, had returned. School days were truncated, grades combined and extras like sports and computers were gone. All but one 10th grader passed their state exams in July, and when they parted, they imagined that 11th grade would be the time they finally put the earthquake behind them.

On that cancelled first day of school, the disappointed students regained their equilibrium remarkably fast. After the hardship they had endured since January, this was a minor setback. After classes resumed, the students were thrilled to crawl back inside the school’s cocoon. But new issues kept intruding, like hurricanes and epidemics. Caroline, elected class secretary, organized a discussion club. Asked the topics, she said, “Cholera, cute boys, whatever.”

In the final count, some 174 students returned to CCF, short of the school’s minimum enrolment to make ends meet. The directors began to harbour serious doubts they could sustain the legacy they inherited.

Some parents, like Pierre Richard Milfort, said that if CCF did shut down, he might take advantage of his American visa and abandon Haiti. “It would be a signal that everything really is coming undone,” he said.

But Caroline refused to contemplate that her school might die. She put her hand over her ears, said, “No! Stop!” adding, “It would be very disastrous – for me personally and for Haiti.

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