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Junta's Legacy: Failing Schools

Haiti's fortunate children learn on crude benches, with warped chalkboards, from teachers who have had little schooling themselves

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TO those hoping to improve Haiti's education, visiting the Alexandre Petion school here is like receiving a whack of the schoolmaster's paddle. The hard reality is that schools here are impoverished and reform will be long and difficult.

At Petion, one of Haiti's oldest and traditionally best public schools, masses of elementary students mill about the courtyard when they should be in class. More than two weeks into new school year, some students have not had any classes because their teachers have yet to show up.

Inside, those fortunate enough to have teachers sit on crude benches before warped chalkboards. Daylight streams through rotted sections of wooden walls. Weeds grow with impunity on the outer walls.

It is not just Haitian school buildings that need massive help,'' says Elizabeth Gibbons, UNICEF representative in Haiti. ``The learning achievement is very, very poor. This is the worst in the hemisphere by far and almost the worst in the world.''

The statistics are grim. Half to three-quarters of Haiti's adults are illiterate. An estimated 1 million children - a seventh of the country's population - have never attended school.

Two-thirds of the children who do attend drop out before they finish sixth grade, according to UNESCO. More pessimistic estimates put the dropout figure closer to 9 out of 10, levels approaching those of the worst African countries, Ms. Gibbons says.

Development officials agree that reforming education is key to Haiti's future. But like so many other state institutions in Haiti - the police and military, the judiciary, and the water and telephone services - the school system will have to be rebuilt almost from scratch. ``We have to do everything,'' says Kesler Jean-Charles, who heads Petion's primary section.

Haiti's interim education minister, Victor Benoit, says the government of recently restored President Jean-Bertrand Aristide will have to move on several fronts:

* Teacher training is inadequate, UNICEF says. In some rural areas, more than eight out of 10 teachers have not completed secondary school.

* The Ministry of Education has been so starved for funds that many of Haiti's public schools cut back operations or closed altogether over the three years of military rule and the United Nations embargo. More than 70 percent of the nation's schools are now privately run.


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