By Jacqueline Charles
A group of students from Lycée Fritz Pierre-Louis who were wearing mustard-colored bottoms and ivory tops were crossing the public square near the presidential palace’s grounds when teens from two rival schools, donning olive green and gray pants with white shirts, approached them and demanded money. They then slapped one of the girls when her purse came up empty.
Over the course of the next three weeks, Fritz Pierre-Louis’ students would report five more violent attacks, including one in which a student was stabbed four times and another was hit on the forehead with a metal chain.
The alarming spike in school violence earlier this year turned out to be just the motivation Education Minister Nesmy Manigat needed to fast-track a lingering idea: transforming a rainbow of uniform colors to just two for Haiti’s 1.2 million public school students. Grade-schoolers will now wear blue and white plaid shirts and blouses with navy bottoms, while high-schoolers will don baby blue tops and navy blue shirts and pants.
“I admit that it’s beautiful, seeing all of the different school uniform colors,” said Manigat, 51. “But when you look at the problems in our education system, what’s more important?”
With the new school year scheduled to start Monday, Manigat is once again gearing up to tackle the public education system in a country where the majority of schools are private, illiteracy and drop-out rates are staggering, qualified teachers are scarce, and protests and political instability seem to be the rule rather than the exception.
“I believe in public education,” he said. “It’s public schools that have to educate the children who don’t have the means.”
Even before Haiti’s devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake damaged and destroyed thousands of schools, the country’s education system was already in ruins.
Of the 800 children born each day before the quake, for example, only 567 were fortunate enough to attend school. And only one of three finished sixth grade, according to statistics compiled by the Inter-American Development Bank. Meanwhile, 90 percent of the schools were in private hands, and the schools adhered to different standards; poor parents, often with more than one child, paid one-and-a-half times their income to send their kids to bad schools.
Five years later, there has been some notable progress. The education ministry says that 1.4 million children now have access to free and universal education through a government subsidized program, known as PSUGO, championed by President Michel Martelly as part of his education reform campaign. Still, the statistics remain daunting, and quality is still an issue, the United Nations’ Children’s Fund says.
“Haitian children have very poor reading competencies and are reading below international standards, meaning that they lack the necessary minimal competencies to understand what they are reading, and are therefore not able to learn and are underperforming,” UNICEF wrote in its 2013 Haiti annual report.
And reading isn’t the only problem. Seventy-five percent of high school graduates who took the national math exam in June failed, Manigat said.
“For every 100 students who make it to [the 13th grade] only three haven’t repeated a grade or dropped out,” he said. “Can we continue with the kind of school system that produces exclusionism and mediocrity? This is a country that should have already had a social explosion.
“There is not a country in the world,” he added, “that has developed without an investment in education.”
But that investment isn’t always easy when the school day is often hijacked by political and social instability.
Just days before the start of school, for example, one of the country’s leading teachers’ unions threatened to boycott opening day. Some of the 30,000 public school teachers are still owed back wages, while others had not yet received their official appointment letters, said Josue Merilien, the head of the national teachers’ union.
“We want a clear response from the government. If we don’t get it, we will mobilize,” he said.
This past school year, Merilien kept Manigat and the education ministry busy with a deluge of protests that forced schools to close nationwide as both teachers and students staged walk outs over salary and other issues.
“They are hiding behind the salary question,” Manigat said during one of the protests in March, citing his recently announced teacher reforms as the real source of the disagreement. “There are a lot people who are going to lose in this reform to put more quality in the system, so it’s normal for them not to be in agreement. It’s normal that you see a lot of grievances, a lot of demonstrations.”
Merilien says that he respects what Manigat wants to do, but that he has his shortcomings.
“He has a lot of good ideas,” he said. “We haven’t heard any reports about him being corrupt and that’s good. But it’s not enough. He has to respect his engagements. There are problems that have been posed that demand a response.”
While requiring teachers to undergo training and work toward certification remain top priorities, Manigat says this school year will also focus more on the classroom. In addition to the new uniform policy, the ministry has launched several new initiatives aimed at improving how students learn, what they learn and when they should start to learn.
“The biggest weakness the country has is that students are studying a bunch of subjects and reading chapters that serve no purpose,” said Manigat, who is piloting citizenship education and introduction to economics courses for first-year high school students. “That’s what high school has become. It’s become like an expired medication. It no longer works.”
To drive home his point that education must be modernized, Manigat pulls out his cellphone and notes that for the first time this year, students were able to get their final exam results off an app that the ministry developed.
“We can’t go backwards,” he said. “The way our education system is today, it’s totally obsolete. The system is producing unemployment and exclusion.”
By his own account, it will take more than a generation to turn Haiti’s broken education system around. But the country has to start somewhere. And that willingness to try has everyone, from Martelly to Prime Minister Evans Paul, taking notice.
“He’s a minister who has a lot of vision,” Paul told the Miami Herald. “But since this is a society in crisis, the crisis doesn’t allow for him to fully develop that vision. But everyone recognizes that he has taken a lot of measures.”
Among them: a new curriculum for preschool education and a policy banning preschool graduation ceremonies; modernizing science and math textbooks; improved instruction in Creole and reducing class sizes to 45 students for grade school and 60 for high school. Manigat admits that the new class-size mandate is more about tackling a problem — school directors are notorious for stacking classrooms to get fees from parents — rather than adhering to any educational norms.
“It’s still too high,” he said of 60. “A student attending a public school in this country always has to fight. He has to fight to find a desk, and then he has to fight to sit in the front to hear what the teacher is saying because a classroom has 200, 300 students.”
The child of educators, Manigat was born in Cap-Haitien but grew up in Ouanaminthe, a northeastern city that sits on the Haiti-Dominican Republic border. While he has a degree in management from Quebec, he spent years teaching and working on education reform initiatives before joining the Haitian government during an April 2014 cabinet shakeup. He became the 33rd education minister in 33 years, and survival hasn’t been easy.
“They have to double the national education budget,” he said. “It’s impossible for the next minister to survive one year if they don’t double the national budget.”
Fluent in Spanish, he often invokes the Dominican Republic, where he worked, and Cuba as examples when discussing the challenges and opportunities Haiti faces. And in his analysis, he’s blunt about the waste, the corruption and the system’s limitations.
“Even if all the students were to pass, we don’t have enough universities here to absorb them,” he said.
Earlier this year, Manigat secretly launched an investigation with the country’s anti-corruption unit into the government’s prized PSUGO program that pays private schools $90 per student to provide free schooling for those unable to get into a government school. Among the investigation’s findings: Some private schools created fake students to earn more money.
“I know this has not made me popular,” said Manigat, who had been criticized for not addressing the program’s corruption.
In the meantime, Manigat is using savings from cuts like the elimination of a standardized national exam to help subsidize the new initiatives, including helping parents buy the new uniforms at a discounted price. Still, some parents, like Lucse Merilien, say they have yet to see any benefits from the changes.
“I don’t have any money and right now I am fighting to see if I can be ready in time for the first day of school,” said Merilien, selling book bags on a Petionville street corner. His 14-year-old daughter, Sophia, attends a Petionville public school.
Manigat is optimistic that Merilien and others soon will see changes, not just in their pockets, but also in a reduction of school violence and social stigmatization. It will be much harder now to single out students based on where they live or go to school, he said.
“This alone isn’t going to help us achieve social equality, but it’s a first step,” he said.
As for the first day of class, Manigat said it will unfold this year just like it did last year when he first announced that school will finally open on time in September, and not October as had become customary. Students will trickle in slowly over the course of days and weeks.
And that’s OK, he said.
“In Haiti, all of the parents never have enough means to send their children to school on the first day,” he said. “But the time has come for us to respect the school calendar … for us to create a new dynamic.”