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Haiti's Rebuilding Shifts to Education

Thousands of Haitian schools reopened for the new school year last month, thanks in part to the support of the United States and other international donors. As Haiti's government works to recover from years of instability, foreign aid remains a key source of backing for its struggling education system. VOA's Brian Wagner recently traveled to Port-au-Prince, and has this report.

One year ago, violence between criminal gangs, Haitian police and U.N. peacekeepers tore apart Cite Soleil. Since then, joint police efforts have brought peace to the nation's largest slum and allowed residents to return and businesses to reopen. While the streets are much safer after the crackdown, there are still few opportunities for Haiti's youth to receive an education and rise out of poverty.

On one cite Soleil corner, resident Job Civil says he and many others wish for opportunities to help them escape long days of boredom.

He says young people have little support, and what they need is an environment that will give them an education and create jobs in the community.

For years, Haitian schools have suffered from lack of resources and trained staff. Less than 70 percent of children attend primary school, and a fraction of those will go on to complete high school and college. One of the reasons is that the cost of schooling can be high for many families in Haiti, where public funding supports only about 10 percent of the nation's 15,000 primary schools.

Religious groups, community organizations and other private groups support the vast majority of schools, such as the St. Germain school in Port-au-Prince.

The school's assistant principal, Ernst Alexis, says conditions in Haiti mean that parents bear a large share of the financial burden for their children's education.

He says students, parents and schools must make constant sacrifices, and many families will do anything to find ways to send their children to school.

Alexis says many families struggle to pay school fees and purchase supplies for their children, and while some students can afford textbooks, others make do with photocopies.

In addition to supporting security efforts, the United States, United Nations and other foreign partners have been trying to help rebuild Haiti's education system.

Over the past three years, the United States has given $24 million to education efforts in Haiti, to train teachers, develop programs and buy supplies. At a recent ceremony in the capital, officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development presented a check for $8 million for new textbooks and other materials for the new school year.

Haiti's Education Minister Gabriel Bien-Aime welcomed the U.S. support to help expand the Haitian government's role in education.

He says the money will help schools overcome some of the difficulties, as the government tries to provide books, uniforms and other materials to students.

Overall U.S. aid to Haiti since 2004 has totaled more than $600 million. Another key source of funds is from Haitians living abroad, who, last year, sent back more than $1.6 billion, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.

Remittances help many students pay for their education, like 10th grade student Fania Joseph, whose father lives and works in Florida. She says she is sad that her father lives far away, but the money he sends home helps to send her to a better school.

She says her father was unable to find work at home, so he left for the United States. She says the lack of jobs is not the fault of the government, but conditions are very difficult.

Like many of her classmates, Joseph says she would like to finish school and leave the country to find work. But she adds she would like to be able to return some day and help her people seek a better life and improve the country.