Destruction of schools in Haiti quake crushes hopes of a better future for many

By William Booth and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 23, 2010; A01

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.

As they reached the entrance, Rosemary and Romelus began arguing over something since forgotten, but their fight made her pause outside the gate. Stephanie entered the school on time.

Moments later, the ground buckled, and Rosemary fell dazed in the street. A cloud of dust rose from what had been the school. Her mind raced to Stephanie trapped inside.

"The argument, by the grace of God, saved me," said Rosemary, a rail-thin woman with a bright smile and eyes the size of silver dollars.

Within a two-block radius of Malraux, three other schools and a university were leveled by the quake. Two kindergartens, one advertised by a mural of Mickey Mouse, were badly damaged and might be too precarious to reopen.

Jean Baptiste Edme, who has taught French grammar at Malraux for 22 years, said he had just left the school at the 4:45 p.m. bell and was walking to his home, now destroyed, a few blocks away when the quake hit.

"We don't have any money, so the only thing we can offer the students is a little bit of education," said Edme, who has taught a generation of his neighbors how to conjugate verbs and now sleeps in the street. "That is our only reward."

The French teacher said residents, stunned and consumed with loss, did not enter the debris until early on the morning after the quake. Edme said they pulled seven survivors, all students, from inside, but the bodies of two dozen or more remain.

"They haven't even found her body yet," said Josette Pierre, 32, who began caring for Stephanie when the girl's aunt died two years ago. "There's many others in there, and we're just waiting. We want her to be buried."

Pierre traveled to the capital from Des Anglais 17 years ago to study. But she said she had to leave school to work, something she did reluctantly. Even today, she hopes to return to the classroom.

Her savings went to Stephanie, whom she described as a gentle prankster who hoped to be a doctor.

She helped Pierre work around the household, a usually raucous and joyful place that has fallen into mourning.

It was unclear who paid Stephanie's tuition, and chances are that after her aunt died and the payments stopped, the staff at Malraux looked the other way and allowed her to continue her studies for free.

A year's tuition at Malraux was about $100, although the school administrators often gave "scholarships" to the poorest students, letting them attend for as little as a few dollars a month. The principal said he has never received support from the Haitian government.

Rosemary's boyfriend, Romelus, a Western Union employee, paid her fees. He finished high school and wants Rosemary to do the same, saying, "It's just the right thing to do -- go to school."

But without a school to go to, Rosemary does not know what she will do. Like many here, she might retrace her family's path back to the provinces in the hope of finding shelter and work.

"I want to go, but I have no money," she said. "So for now, I'll live here with God's help."

No plans

The owner of Malraux and his teachers have no plans, either.

"We are waiting for someone to come with a big machine to move the rubble so we can take out the bodies," Moreno said.

He continued, "I am a school principal, and I have no big savings" to rebuild. Moreno doubted that he would find an investor because the school made so little money.

"We need schools for the hope they may bring," he said.

The education ministry sits behind a high wall in the city center, and on a recent day, Renau held a staff meeting with a handful of men in plastic chairs under the shade of broad-leafed trees. A legal pad rested in his lap, its pages filled with a growing to-do list.

Renau said ministry employees had fanned into the city to survey the damage to campuses and to begin tallying how many teachers and staff might have perished.

In addition, he said, other officials are trying to gather student records from the debris. He said those would be essential if the ministry attempts to send them outside the country for studies until the schools here are repaired. That could be years away.

The clanking of hammers scored the meeting. Behind him, men worked on the collapsed second story of the ministry building, tossing down filing cabinets and air-conditioning units into a rising pile of detritus.

"Maybe," Renau said, "there is a life to save in there."

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