School Days Lift Spirits In Quake-Ravaged Haiti

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    A mother watches her boy play in the courtyard of the Saint-Jean l'Evangeliste Catholic boys school in downtown Port-au-Prince. The old school was destroyed in January's earthquake, which left more than 80 percent of schools damaged or destroyed.
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    A construction worker walks in front of one of the new school rooms at Saint-Jean l'Evangeliste. New wooden and steel rooms were erected as soon as the rubble was cleared. At private schools like this one, tuition costs the equivalent of about $50 per month.
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    Teachers instruct their students, their open-air classrooms separated by a mere piece of plywood. Before the earthquake, 1,300 students were enrolled; today there are 800.
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    Third-graders sit at their desks during class. Most schools are running two-cycle classes, with one shift in the morning and another in the afternoon.
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    Lochard Samael, 6, sits at his desk. His father was killed in the earthquake.
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    Lochard Samael works on a math problem with his teacher.
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    Father Nelson Augustin is the school's principal. He has worked tirelessly since the earthquake to get the school rebuilt and open for classes.
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    A boy inspects a bug he caught during a session in an open-air classroom.
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    A teacher talks to a boy who had been disruptive in class.
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    Children play after classes while waiting for their parents to pick them up.
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    They must wait on the school grounds until their parents arrive.
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    Children leave the school grounds with their parents after class. Their time at school provides a constructive respite from the earthquake aftermath in downtown Port-au-Prince.
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In Haiti, one of the strongest signs of life returning to normal four months after the earthquake is that each morning, the streets are once again filled with children in school uniforms.

Reopening the classrooms was a huge challenge. Many school buildings were destroyed. Others were quickly occupied by people who had lost their homes and had nowhere else to live.

The Ministry of Education has been constructing simple, open wood-frame classrooms to hold schools until more permanent structures can be built.

One example is the St. Jean L'Evangeliste school in the Turgeau section of Port-au-Prince, which was destroyed in the earthquake. Now almost all the debris from the previous building is gone, with the exception of some shattered cinder blocks tossed to the edge of the lot.

Plywood Walls, Corrugated Metal

Classrooms of plywood walls and corrugated metal roofs stretch to the back of the property.

And students have returned, like the group of fourth-grade boys who were recently shoving each other around on the concrete basketball court, yelling and laughing.

Lochard Samael works on a math problem with his teacher. i i

At his school in Port-au-Prince, Lochard Samael, 6, works on a math problem with his teacher. He lost his father in the Jan. 12 earthquake but has since been able to return to school. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR
Lochard Samael works on a math problem with his teacher.

At his school in Port-au-Prince, Lochard Samael, 6, works on a math problem with his teacher. He lost his father in the Jan. 12 earthquake but has since been able to return to school.

David Gilkey/NPR

The Rev. Nelson Augustin, the school's principal, says the old school had 29 classrooms, a library with 5,000 books, an auditorium and a computer lab. Now all they have are the simple classrooms with rows of desks facing a single blackboard.

But he says the reopening of his school in mid-April has been a huge blessing.

They're kids, Augustin says, so they have a big capacity to jump quickly between happiness and sadness.

"We have a lot of kids themselves who were victims," he says. "Kids who were under the rubble or their parents were under the rubble. Even kids who lost their parents."

Augustin says the biggest problem facing the school right now is that families can't afford the roughly $50 a month in tuition. Parents have lost their homes, their jobs, often all their savings.

He says the school cut the tuition by 25 percent, but still many people are struggling to pay.

$6 Million To Build 50 Temporary Schools

The Inter-American Development Bank has given $6 million to build 50 schools like St. Jean L'Evangeliste. Some are finished. Others are still under construction. Most will be in Port-au-Prince. When finished, the temporary schools will provide classrooms for 65,000 students.

The Rev. Leingkone Arnaud at St. Jean L'Evengeliste says the lightweight walls are actually reassuring to many students who are still traumatized by the earthquake. "Definitely the children feel much safer," he says — especially since there are no heavy concrete walls to fall down on them.

Eventually the school will be rebuilt with solid walls, but even the principal has no idea how long it will take to find the money and resources to do that.

The school operates in two shifts, with primary school in the morning and the secondary or high school in the afternoon.

At 1 p.m., parents stream onto the grounds to pick up their young children.

Abigail Toussant has come to collect her 6-year-old, Uri.

Toussant says she's happy to have her son back in school. They live in a tent with 22 other people.

She says for weeks on end, Uri was bored and starting to misbehave. He was always asking her why they couldn't rent a real home. She had to keep explaining that houses across Port-au-Prince were destroyed and there aren't even any left to rent.

Toussaint adds that one of the hardest things right now is that there's no privacy in the tent. If you want privacy, she says, you close your eyes and go to sleep.

She says that except for not having a home, things are returning to normal.

And especially for Uri, the reopening of school is a big part of making their daily lives feel like they're getting back on track.

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