September 9, 2001

Haiti struggles to educate its children

                 PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Reuters) -- In a cinder-block classroom
                 perched on a hilltop in Haiti's Carrefour-Feuilles district, teacher Jean
                 Jacques Pierre stood at a chalkboard, easing almost two dozen students
                 into the Caribbean nation's first day of school at the private College
                 Mixte Bethel.

                 "Where are we?" Pierre asked his students, who were between the ages of 6
                 and 10.

                 "Haiti," chimed the children, sporting their new uniforms, plaid shirts and navy
                 blue trousers and skirts.

                 The students were among the few fortunate enough to be in school on opening
                 day last Monday as Haiti's faltering economy crimped parents' plans to buy
                 education for their children.

                 Haiti's government opened schools as planned last week, despite calls from
                 parents and the teachers' union to delay the start of classes to allow Haitians
                 more time to gather money and supplies for their children.

                 But most of the classrooms at Mixte Bethel were empty and teachers and staff
                 stood idly by. Only about two dozen students showed up the first day at a
                 school that can accommodate 250.

                 "Not all the students are able to come," said the Rev. Joseph Daniel Charles, an
                 education adviser at the school and a teacher for 16 years. "The country and the
                 situation is very difficult."

                 Between 10 percent and 20 percent of Haiti's schools have no monthly fees. At
                 the rest, parents must pay up to $200 as an entry fee plus $10 to $60 a month
                 to send their children to class -- difficult to manage in a country where per
                 capita annual income is around $400.

                 Some schools also charge placement fees of up to $200, paid in June to secure
                 a child's seat for the next school year.

                 In theory, admission to public schools is based on income with the poorest in
                 first. But given the level of poverty and corruption in Haiti, admission is often
                 based on connections.

                 Mired under dictatorship and military rule for decades, Haiti historically has not
                 made education a priority.

                 Critics say Haiti's long line of strongmen believed they could best retain power
                 by making sure people could not read or write. According to one account,
                 deposed dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier spent $3.70 per person annually on

                 But during his first term in power in the early 1990s, President Jean-Bertrand
                 Aristide, Haiti's first freely elected leader, created a deputy ministry for literacy.
                 His successor, Rene Preval, built 158 schools, the government said.

                 Still, paying for education is no easy task in the Americas' poorest country,
                 where the average minimum wage is under $2 a day. Haiti's trade deficit
                 amounted to nearly $1 billion last year.

                 Both politics and economics take their toll on education.

                 Adult literacy is 45 percent, according to a CIA factbook. The U.S. State
                 Department says only 45 percent of children attend primary school. The Haitian
                 government says just 15 percent enroll in secondary school.

                 Haitians hungry for education

                 At the same time teachers were giving their first lesson for the year, parents and
                 children jammed the capital's bustling downtown to buy books, notebooks,
                 uniforms, and school materials on Jean-Jacques Dessalines Boulevard.

                 Street merchants peddled pens and notebooks outside the Maison Henri
                 Deschamps, a government distributor of supplies.

                 Francoise, a clothes retailer, waited almost four hours to buy school supplies
                 for her five children. She said the economic crisis has made it tough to save
                 money for education.

                 "It's hard, but you have to prepare in advance," she said, standing in line on a
                 sidewalk teeming with parents jockeying for position to enter the crowded
                 school supply store.

                 Just down the street at the Acra clothing outlet where uniforms and cloth to
                 make them are sold, it was the same chaotic scene -- the store was packed with
                 parents and kids.

                 "It's getting more and more difficult every year to pay for school," said Marlene,
                 a nurse and mother of two.

                 Unemployed construction worker Jean Robert Jean-Jacques, a 33-year-old
                 father of five, was unable to send any of his four school-age children to school
                 this year.

                 "I was working in a construction site and, for this, I found nothing to put them
                 in school -- not even one," he said despondently outside his home, a concrete
                 hovel teetering precariously on a steep ravine in the Carrefour-Feuilles slum. "I
                 don't feel well, because I would like them to go."

                 Aristide's government, however, is trying to help fathers like Jean-Jacques get
                 their kids into school.

                 This year the state is providing 144,000 uniforms to students, paying for some
                 school books, and transporting students to class, Haiti's education minister,
                 Georges Merisier, said before resigning on Tuesday, the day after schools

                 Taiwan donated $1 million to subsidize the programs.

                    Copyright 2001 Reuters