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9080: Haiti struggles to educate its children (fwd)

From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>

     By Trenton Daniel

     PORT-AU-PRINCE, Sept 9 (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 advisor at the school and a teacher for 16 years. "We
have an economr the country and the situation is very difficult."
     Between 10 percent and 20 percent of Haiti's schools are with 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 education.
     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. Its budget deficit came to
about $45 million in t???de and the opposition coalition Democratic
Convergence stemming from flawed legislative elections last year has
stalled a foreign aid package of more than $500 million.
     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.
     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
     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
     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 opened.
     Taiwan donated $1 million to subsidize the programs.