Destruction of schools in Haiti quake crushes hopes of a better future for many
Saturday, January 23, 2010
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- Of the many things taken from this city by the earthquake, few are as threatening to Haiti's future as the near destruction of a school system viewed across society here as the only path to a better life.
Education is as precious as water in Haiti. The ruined capital was filled with parochial and secular schools built on the strict French model, many affordable even to the poorest parents, who struggled to pay a few dollars a week in tuition. Early each morning, legions of children in crisp uniforms marched through the city's trash-strewn streets to study mathematics, civics, science and a variety of languages, a sign of hope that endured through coups, foreign interventions and natural disasters.
Now there are no schools. Education officials here estimate that the quake erased thousands of campuses, and at least 75 percent of those in the capital lie in ruins. A grim census is underway to determine the loss of teachers and staff, hundreds of whom remain unaccounted for in heaps of blackboards, concrete, desks and notebooks that appear on almost every block.
"Without education, we have nothing," said Michel Renau, director of national exams at the Ministry of National Education, Youth and Sports, which itself is a rubble pile in the city center. "We've been set back very far. But if we pull ourselves together quickly, we'll go on."
The prevalence of schools here highlights their social importance. Nearly every block has one, with many meeting in multiple sessions into the evening. In the quake's aftermath, the debris-filled sites where they once stood are the places that smell the strongest of death. They were filled with children.
The Andre Malraux School once sat on a breezy hillside, and from its second-story classroom windows, a view of the capital spread out below like a promise of opportunity.
When the 7.0-magnitude quake hit, the second story collapsed, crushing as many as 30 students. Class bells had just rung five minutes before the earth rumbled, and most of the dead appear to have been lingering in one room, cramming in a few extra minutes of study to pass upcoming national exams needed to go on to college.
"If you don't pass it, you will stay where your father is, you will be a mechanic or a cleaner," said Osse Jean Moreno, principal and owner of the school, a son and grandson of teachers, who opened Malraux in 1988 and has added classrooms whenever he has had a little extra money.
"School is life," said Exinor Emmanuel, the school's accountant and a former Malraux student. "To succeed in life, there is no other way in Haiti but school for the regular little boy or girl."
Now in rooms redolent of death from bodies lodged inside is a glimpse of the wider damage done to the education system and to the millions of Haitians who relied on it.
'By the grace of God'
About 40 teachers taught more than 1,000 students at Malraux, whose campus covered an area about the size of a tennis court. In the gathering dusk of Jan. 12, the third of three daily sessions prepared to enter the green steel gate and begin evening classes.
Stephanie Pierre, a 21-year-old who loved mathematics, walked up the small hill from the home she shared with 15 others. Many Haitians attend high school into their 20s, having begun late or had studies interrupted because they took jobs to help their families. Rosemary Pierre, a cousin and classmate, and her boyfriend, Romelus Daniel, walked with Stephanie.