Several months ago, Vanneur Pierre, Haitian Minister of National Education and Vocational Training, invited me to visit his country and see firsthand a glimpse into the Haitian education system. Since the devastating earthquake hit in 2010 the U.S. Government has pledged its support as Haiti seeks to rebuild its economy and infrastructure, including its education system. The two days I spent in Haiti were inspiring and heartbreaking. From a school that is educating kids that live on the streets during the day to a hundred children crammed into a 7th grade classroom, the thirst and hunger for learning was incredible.
Along with visiting three schools, I had the opportunity to join USAID Associate Administrator Mark Feierstein and Senior Advisor for International Education Christie Vilsack to announce a multi-million dollar program in Haiti for USAID’s Room to Learn. This program will help to support equitable access for vulnerable children.
Each school we visited, while lacking modern amenities was full of an entrepreneurial spirit and will to learn. The school buildings were unlike anything we could imagine in this country. Most were semi-outdoor structures with little or no electricity and stark dusty walls with paint generations old. No fancy gyms, libraries or cafeterias to see, only brick, mortar and gravel to make up the landscape. Each student sat at a desk or on a bench attentively looking towards the front of the room. Classroom after classroom, student after student, each was focused on the lesson plan of the day. When the teacher spoke, you could hear a pin drop.
The first school we visited was Ecole St. Jean de Dieu, which is part of the Minister’s initiative to promote access for vulnerable school-aged children who are outside of the education system. Most of the students at this school are homeless and live on the streets during the day but attend classes in the afternoons. I met 16 year olds who were in the second grade, far behind where they should be but trying to get an education to build a better life.
While traveling through Haiti I also had the opportunity to visit the Haitian Education and Leadership Program (HELP) program which provides university scholarships in Haiti for straight-A students from disadvantaged backgrounds. One student, overcome by her past, cried as she told me about her life’s journey. I sat and listened to the passionate and personal stories of students in this program discussed how their world was changed as a result of the opportunity to continue their education.
I visited another school, Ecole Nationale de Tabarre, an outdoor set of buildings, where I witnessed students reading books in their native tongue of creole donated by USAID’s read to learn program to make education more accessible for all children. From there we went to Lycee de Petionville, one of Haiti’s model high schools. I saw a classroom of over 100 7th graders packed into a room built for 30-40. After visiting some classrooms, I joined the basketball team for a brief scrimmage in the school’s cement courtyard and basketball court. It was a remarkable sight to see, two and three stories up an entire school looking down on the court.
The future of Haiti was looking down on me. I saw hundreds of eyes, full of optimism and hope for a better tomorrow recognizing that having a strong education can put you on a path to a better life. These children, like other Haitian children across the country, want an education and are willing to try despite the odds against them.
It’s inspiring to see so many children, teachers, and national leaders committed to making much needed investments in Haiti’s next generation. Parents and leaders in the U.S. and Haiti share a common desire to create a high quality education system for all that adequately prepares our children for success in their personal and professional lives. A strong Haiti can be built by a strong education system and a strong ministry of education. I want to continue being a good partner with President Michel Martelly, Minister Pierre and the entire Haitian government to strengthen the nation, one child at a time.
Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education