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Educators See Opportunity In Haiti School Rubble

JONATHAN M. KATZ   03/ 1/10 03:45 PM ET   AP

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — After seven weeks with seven kids huddled under a shelter of tarps and bed sheets on the median strip of a busy road, Lissithe Delomme says the Haitian government can't reopen schools fast enough.

"If they would open right now I'd be pretty happy," she said, trying to ignore the tumult of two of her boys wrestling as she fried up a batch of plantains for sale. "They're just sitting around doing nothing."

The Jan. 12 quake dealt a devastating blow to Haiti's already struggling schools: More than 80 percent in the earthquake zone were damaged or destroyed. All in Port-au-Prince and the other affected towns remain closed, and with tens of thousands of bored and restless children living in increasingly squalid encampments, patience is growing short.

On Monday, a group of private school directors delivered a petition to President Rene Preval decrying the lack of government action and demanding schools reopen immediately – be they in tents, temporary buildings or other makeshift facilities.

But some are urging caution before rushing back into a system that never really worked in the first place.

"This is an opportunity in a lifetime to radically change the educational system in Haiti," said Marcelo Cabrol, head of the Inter-American Development Bank's education division. "We want to be aggressive."

The problems are monumental: Just one in 10 Haitian teachers is a qualified educator, according to the IADB – and a third have not even completed ninth grade. The government is unable to support more than a handful of schools, leaving the system dominated by fly-by-night, for-profit storefront schools whose onerous fees and other costs keep half of Haiti's children from enrolling at any given time.

Buildings were so unsafe that one school collapsed on its own in 2008, a year and three months before the quake, killing 100 students and adults.

Wealthy Haitians and foreigners opt out entirely, putting their children in upscale schools that cost some $8,000 per year – more than most Haitians will spend on food and basic necessities in 20 years.

Before the earthquake, Associated Press journalists visited classrooms in rickety warehouses, one with an open-pit toilet dug alongside the desks. In a private elementary school just blocks from the National Palace a teacher slumped in his chair, half asleep, while a teenage student scrawled rote Creole phrases on a flimsy blackboard.

That school is gone now – one of the more than 3,800 damaged or destroyed in the quake. Nearly 4,000 students, and more than 700 teachers, principals and staff were killed during afternoon classes. All that's left of the Ministry of Education's main building is a crater filled with torn workbooks and lost teachers' ID cards.

Education advocates see a chance for a fresh start.

Celebrities like Shakira, Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban have pledged money to rebuild individual schools and prominent U.S. educators are volunteering to help restructure the system.

Paul Vallas, a former Chicago and Philadelphia superintendent working to rebuild Louisiana's storm-ravaged Recovery School District, is working with the IABD, researching ways to build hurricane- and earthquake-resistant buildings in Haiti and create a unified Creole-language curriculum to improve math, reading and other skills.

"We benefited from the generosity of others and we almost feel there's an obligation for us to the same," Vallas told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from New Orleans.

The IADB has also reached out to Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp proposing a program for Haiti that would train and employ teachers, drawing from some of the estimated 35,000 university students who lost their classrooms, as well as Haitian diaspora and others overseas.

Education officials know they have limited time to act. The education ministry is eyeing an early April return.

"A country can't function without education. We can't have our children in the streets," said Laguerre, who attended Catholic schools in Haiti and earned advanced degrees in Paris and Montreal.

Before schools can open, however, officials want to assess buildings, while locating tents, food for students, financial support for teachers and psychological counseling for students affected by the quake, said education ministry director general Pierre Michel Laguerre.

Some aid groups are running school-like programs. Israeli and Haitian volunteers teach basic lessons like hygiene and counting in the sprawling makeshift camp behind the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne base in Petionville, but organizers say it is a temporary program.

On Monday a Catholic school in Petionville reopened for a couple hours to teach students earthquake preparedness and provide psychological counseling, but regular lessons will not resume until the government reopens its schools, teachers said.

For most like Delomme, the long interruption piles stress onto an already catastrophic situation. School lunch is often the only nutrition her kids get in a day.

"The schools remain the only sector that is still closed. The banks reopened, the markets are opening, transportation is functioning again," said Charles Tardieu, a former education minister and member of the committee that petitioned Preval's office.

Its members agree that reform is necessary, but argue that reopening schools can't wait for ingrained problems to be solved. "If this is the situation, you're not going to be opening the schools for the next 10 years," he said.

Delomme, who never completed elementary school, had managed against the odds to keep her kids in school. Fees were a struggle, classes were lousy and teachers often didn't show up, but it meant everything to the 41-year-old mom who wanted to give them the chance she never had.

With no radio or electricity for a television under the family's musty tarps, her only information about school comes from conflicting rumors about when classes might begin. She hopes word that it won't be much longer is true.

"All I can give them is an education," she said.

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Filed by Victoria Fine  |