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Haiti Educators Are Despondent Over Conditions

Times Staff Writer

Outside the rusted gates of a boys elementary school, Acelin Lazarre peddles pencils, notebooks and lunch boxes.

When the streets are quiet, she can earn 25 to 30 gourdes, less than a dollar but enough to save school fees for her daughter and buy their single daily meal of rice or macaroni.

On a day when fighting between rival gangs and police closes the schools and empties the streets of potential buyers, Lazarre loses a few days’ tuition, 14-year-old Lovely falls behind in her studies and they both go hungry.

Like most adults in Haiti, where 90% of the population lives in dire poverty, Lazarre is struggling for her child’s education. In a nation where 53% of those 15 and older can read and write, political unrest has accelerated the decline of Haiti’s schools, clouding children’s prospects for an education.

Gunfire that rakes poor neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince has scared away many students, said Michel Metellus, principal of Liberia National Public School.

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Since Sept. 30, when the latest wave of unrest broke out, classes have been canceled most days because neither students nor teachers wanted to risk trying to get to the downtown building.

“It goes from bad to worse. We need everything from chairs to books. Parents have no jobs so they can’t afford to pay the fees. We can’t even get the [state] financing we were promised because of the unrest,” Metellus said of the shootouts between police and supporters of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide who are demanding his return from South Africa.

A former priest, Aristide rose to prominence in the late 1980s, promising to lift the masses from poverty through better education. He was elected president in 1990, ousted a year later in a military coup, then returned to power in 1994. A rebellion early this year drove him again into exile.

Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, remains economically paralyzed despite the deployment in March of a U.S.-led stabilization force and a U.N. peacekeeping mission that took over in June. Factories looted and burned in the aftermath of Aristide’s Feb. 29 departure lie in ruins. Gunmen threatening police and others collaborating with the interim government have managed to shut down the port, through which most commercial goods and humanitarian aid passes.

Now teachers blame Aristide for the violence as well as for the crumbling state of education.

“Those doing the shooting don’t want the schools to function. They don’t want anything in the country to get back to normal,” said Jean-Rodrigue Lahens, who has taught at the Liberia school for 15 years.

Public schools like Liberia serve less than 25% of Haiti’s students. The rest attend private or parochial institutions for which parents must pay monthly fees and annual tuition. Both public and private school students pay for books, uniforms and enrollment.

Even at the public secondary school Lycee Marie-Jean where Lovely Lazarre studies, the annual costs run about 2,500 gourdes, about $70 -- or nearly 100 days of her mother’s earnings.

Emmanuel Buteau, a former education minister in Aristide’s government and now head of private high school Les Normaliens Reunis, has grown despondent about the quality of this country’s schools through the 38 years he has been teaching.

“It began when [former dictator Francois “Papa Doc”] Duvalier gave in to pressure to accept all students in the public schools in the 1960s,” Buteau said. “Enrollment exploded but there were no new schools built so class size went from 40 or 50 students to more than 150.”

Private schools cropped up overnight, financed by parents fearful that the crowding would hamper their children’s education. A two-tiered school system resulted, with the elite and the middle classes supporting private schools and the poor attending underfunded state institutions.

Aristide’s critics say he failed to keep his promises to improve education.

“For a year I tried to get his support for a plan of action, to build 20 new high schools, to make a reality of what had been promised. He had no interest, and when I pushed he accused me of wanting to build schools so I could become president myself,” said Buteau, who joined Aristide’s Cabinet when the president was restored to power in 1994.

Education Minister Pierre Buteau -- no relation to the private school director -- points out that public schools in the poorest communities provide children with a hot lunch that is often the only food they get. Each day school is canceled means tens of thousands of children don’t eat, he said.

The education minister said the interim government has earmarked the largest share of $1 billion in humanitarian aid to support schools and students. But most of the programs are hamstrung by the violence.

At the private Massillon Coicou School that offers kindergarten, elementary and secondary education, a drastic drop in enrollment has meant faculty layoffs and consolidation of six elementary grades into two classes.

Founder Denis St. Fort declined to say what percentage of his students passed their state exams during the two-month unrest this year, deeming that information “a commercial secret.”


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