A School Fights for Life in Battered Haiti

Caroline Begein, 15, center, prayed with other students at the nonpublic Collège Classique Féminin in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. CreditMichael Appleton for The New York Times

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — In mid-October, when fresh-faced girls in starched uniforms skipped through the gates of the Collège Classique Féminin 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 enrollment.

When the opening bell rang, the students, from first graders in hair ribbons to seniors in lip gloss, 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 Collège Classique Féminin (known as C.C.F.), 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, C.C.F., 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 C.C.F. 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 C.C.F. 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 Oct. 4 proved little more than “symbolic,” as Pierre Michel Laguerre, the Education Ministry’s director general, put it

Neighborhood by neighborhood, 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 Mr. 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.

Creating a traditional public school system “was not realistic in the short term,” said Marcelo Cabrol, education chief for the development bank. He recruited Paul G. Vallas, the Louisiana Recovery School District superintendent who has overseen a proliferation of charter schools after Katrina.

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.

Still, while the development bank has committed to raising $500 million, the $4.2 billion reform plan remains largely unfinanced. This worries those familiar with Haiti’s poor record for turning strategic plans into realities.

“Right now, we need a series of day-to-day actions to seize the moment,” Mr. Lumarque said. “But there is no ownership for this plan. Elections are Nov. 28, the education minister has packed his bags, donors are in a wait-and-see mode — and we have a problem with our institutions making it through this year.”

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

In the nightmarish city center, what they saw at the school gate was heart-stopping: four unattended book bags. They later learned that girls waiting outside for a ride had abandoned the bags and fled to safety.

Inside C.C.F., the media center 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.

“We stood outside our school yard and cried like children,” Ms. Craft said.

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, Renée Héraux, 77, greeted the women with a home remedy for distress. One by one, she fed them spoonfuls of a sugar cane syrup concoction.

Mrs. Héraux 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.

But she would not let the younger women feel defeated. “We were saying, ‘That’s it. C.C.F. is no longer,’ ” said Djenane Sajous, one of Mrs. Héraux’s daughters. “But my mom said, ‘C.C.F. is not just a building. It’s a spirit. It’s a heritage.’ ”

In the early 1960s, Mrs. Héraux, a teacher, had a vision for an independent Catholic school for girls — one that included religious instruction but did not belong to the church, employ nuns or rely on rote memorization. She and her co-founders started with 27 girls — their daughters and friends’ daughters. They opened in a rented house, adding grades yearly until they built a small campus and a reputation for top results on official examinations — and in competitive volleyball.

In the late 1980s, after the Duvalier regime ended, the school, located in a volatile urban zone, began hemorrhaging students. Upper middle class families gravitated to suburban private schools with American or French curriculums; many alumnae declined to send their daughters to the school.

In the end, the school adapted. Civil servants, small business owners and families dependent on remittances from abroad, it turned out, coveted the cachet of one of Haiti’s finest schools even if the price tag remained relatively elite.

“The clientele changed,” Mrs. Héraux said, “but the education — the standards — remained the same.”

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 C.C.F.

Many Haitian families devote an equivalent chunk of their income to schooling. “Parents are willing to pay for education in Haiti unlike almost anywhere else,” Mr. Cabrol said.

They have little choice. The government spends the equivalent of only 1.5 percent of the gross domestic product on education, compared with almost 5 percent in the region.

Choices and Sacrifices

Ms. Jean-Gilles said she was determined to provide Caroline, 15 and in 11th grade, a chance “to soar above her origins.” She herself 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, Ms. Jean Gilles has been singularly devoted to her daughter, sending her to the best school she could find.

“In Haiti, if you want something for the future of your children, you have to choose wisely and sacrifice,” Ms. Jean-Gilles said. “Me alone, I couldn’t give her what she’s gotten at C.C.F. over the last 10 years. She expresses herself very well, I can say that. People congratulate me. And she wants to be a doctor.”

“More precisely, a pediatrician,” Caroline interjected.

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.

“That’s why I work so hard, that’s why I don’t repeat grades, that’s why I have a goal,” Caroline said. Her goal: “I plan to put myself at the service of my country and perhaps of humanity.”

Caroline and her mother live in a rental home without electricity outside Port-au-Prince. The house withstood the quake, and Caroline, after nights of praying and singing in the streets with less fortunate neighbors, found herself riddled with survivors’ guilt: “I thought, ‘Why not me?’ Why was I not under the rubble like the others?’ ”

In the months that followed, Caroline and her classmates located one another — all the students in her class had survived — and found out who was homeless, who was hurt and who was in mourning. When Caroline learned some were being sent abroad, she begged them not to break up the band of sisters.

“I called friends saying, ‘Please, if you leave, that will ruin everything,’ ” Caroline said. “But they had to respect what their parents wanted.”

Before school reopened in April, Caroline often accompanied her mother to work, where she used the Internet to look at school photos posted on Facebook by classmates abroad “in order to remember the way we were,” she said.

Caroline, describing herself on Facebook as “a teen who adores romanticism,” Skittles and Eminem, posed a defiant question: “And what if we all were to get together, forming a strong solidarity based on love and determination … Would we not get Haiti back on its feet?”

In March C.C.F., 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 colorful desks violently tossed on a bed of chopped concrete; an assignment from Jan. 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 favorite places. “I also wanted to tell them in person that Meghann was gone,” Mr. Jacquitte said, staring at a picture of her on his cellphone.

The directors felt overwhelmed by the parents’ determination to start over. “With each parent who said, ‘Yes, my child is alive, and yes, my child will come back,’ we realized we could not close,” Ms. Rousseau said. “We could not let them down.”

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

Jeanette Nicaisse, 41, a math teacher there for 25 years, lost her home to the earthquake and gained two new dependents: her mother, whose legs were crushed, and her adult brother, who suffered a disabling head injury.

“Obviously, I see the state of the school, and I know they have to spend a lot to fix it,” Ms. Nicaisse said. “But we all have problems. The teachers were very angry. We have a 12-month contract and it wasn’t honored. Now, sometimes, I think, if a better offer came along …”

In April, the directors gathered the students for a week of group therapy, led by Ms. 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 Jan. 12,” began Caroline, who then coaxed a classmate trembling with tears to follow.

“My name is Medjina Géné,” she said, “and I, too, survived the earthquake of Jan. 12.” Medjina, whose mother had been injured and had close relatives killed, was in shaky shape.

But the group sessions soothed her, she said: “They helped me not to cry and to look at things from another perspective — to have hope, to make new attachments and to let those dear beings I lost remain in my heart.”

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.

In August and September, the directors struggled to find help for expensive demolition and construction work. When the Education Ministry offered no guidance, they used connections to get a government agency to build portable classrooms.

The work proceeded slowly, and the directors internalized their anxiety, suffering back aches and chest pains. Things looked bleak. The school had 329 students before the earthquake. By the registration deadline in September, only 19 parents had paid tuition deposits.

“I think the earthquake just revealed the cracks that were already there,” Ms. Kenol said. “Everybody’s financial situation was already degraded. Parents were less and less able to pay. We were already thinking that we would need some kind of subsidies.”

On that canceled 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 C.C.F., short of the school’s minimum enrollment to make ends meet. The directors began to harbor serious doubts they could sustain the legacy they inherited.

Some parents, like Pierre Richard Milfort, said that if C.C.F. 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.”