For the first time in St. Antoine’s history the teachers are worried about their girls in Grade 6. Before the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake 100 per cent of Pupils de St. Antoine students would pass state exams that qualify them to move on to Grade 7 and secondary school.
This year most of the girls are living in tents on the Champ de Mars. Before the earthquake there were 700 students, now there are 570. Many of the parents are having trouble coming up with $180 for school fees, to say nothing of books and uniforms. Development and Peace is helping by paying for hearty lunches of rice and beans with vegetables and meat. The girls are eating better than their parents.
The girls’ biggest handicap is the loss of their school building, according to school principal Sr. Sainte-Anne Jean-Baptiste. The old St. Antoine’s is a heap of rubble and the Sisters of St. Anne have no money to clear it and rebuild or to buy another site.
“The education we want to give children we can’t give right now. They need to progress — to go from one success to another,” said Jean-Baptiste. “It’s almost impossible to study in the tents.”
St. Antoine’s is borrowing the classrooms of Cole Marie Reine Immaculate. When that school lets out in the afternoon, St. Antoine’s moves in. But St. Antoine’s has no offices, no meeting rooms, no equipment, nothing but the classrooms — many of which are squares on the concrete courtyard walled off by sheets of plywood beneath a tin roof.
There are about 40 girls in every classroom. Their teachers also live in tents, though many are able to remain at the site of their old homes and thus are spared the crowded, fetid, cholera-breeding tent camps.
Veteran teacher Michelle Auguste believes in her students. “With education these girls will do anything,” she said.
Auguste isn’t talking out of pollyanna optimism. Her daughter went to St. Antoine’s and then high school at College Marie-Anne — both inner city Catholic schools whose students are mainly lower middle class and poor. She is now in second year at National Taiwan University studying physiotherapy.
Cecile Romiette Auguste speaks French, Creole, Spanish, English and Mandarin. She may pursue a Master’s degree after her undergraduate studies in Taiwan.
“Those who educated me in elementary school and high school, even if I might spend my life talking about them I don’t think I could ever describe to you half their worth,” the young Auguste wrote in an e-mail.
She visited home last summer and wept at the ruins of her old school.
“I believe strongly that a generation of women who graduated from St. Antoine can transform the fate of my country,” said Auguste.
Little of Haiti’s education system still stands. Eighty-nine per cent of the schools — including two universities in Port-au-Prince — were destroyed. The Haitian government has developed a $4.2 billion, five-year plan to cover education, but doesn’t have the money to implement it. Current government spending is around $80 million per year. The Inter-American Development Bank kicked in $50 million in November, and will contribute $250 million over five years.
The United Nations Development Program lists Haiti’s literacy rate at 62.1 per cent, but most observers think the real rate is just over 50 per cent. For Haiti to ever become a real, functioning democracy the literacy rate will have to rise significantly among the earthquake generation.
At Ecole Immaculee Conception Haiti’s future looks bright. The school yard is filled with happy, energetic girls rehearsing a dance for a school show. Annual fees are $500 and while these kids are not necessarily rich, they are less likely to be caught up in the tent camps than St. Antoine’s students.
Development and Peace has provided $350,000 to the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception to build the second storey of a two-storey school. As construction on the earthquake-proof school proceeds, classes are held under tents.
The Sisters have put their students and the school ahead of their own comfort. While the hill-top site is host to a busy construction crew laying bricks and mixing cement, the nine Sisters are living in four old classrooms in the old school. All the community’s possessions, from clothes to books, are piled in an old box car nearby. Every Sunday between 300 and 500 people gather in the open space where the rubble has been cleared to celebrate Mass with the Sisters.
Sr. Josette Drouinard would love the new building to have an auditorium and chapel but there are no funds. Meanwhile she is proud of the new school under construction.
“It will be a functional building, but with all the comforts,” she said.