A student works on a math exercise on the blackboard
Port-au-Prince - AFP
Nearly three million Haitian children are returning to school Monday to face an educational system rife with exclusion and failure. But one minister is trying to turn the tide.
Education Minister Nesmy Manigat points to the huge challenges ahead as a new school year gets underway.
"Today, 10 percent of children -- about 400,000 -- won't even go to school," he said.
"And out of every 100 children who go to school this year, less than 10 will finish high school without repeating a grade or dropping out."
The education minister is ruthless in his assessment of the situation: "Schools are set up for failure. They exclude many students."
The crippling poverty that families grapple with on a daily basis is a major hurdle.
"Education is supposed to be free. But of course, there are always related expenses that that parents must assume," said the UNICEF deputy representative in Haiti, Jean Ludovic Metenier.
Indeed, the universal education program -- free and mandatory -- launched by President Michel Martelly only finances school enrollment.
And it does not apply to private schools, which educate about 60 percent of Haitian students.
- Quest for smaller classes -
Martelly tried to sound upbeat Monday as Haitian kids went back to school. He said in a tweet that "all measures have been taken for students to go back to school in the best conditions."
In his search for a quality public education, Manigat recommended a limit of 60 students per class in high school.
"A minister in my position should never have to even say that, because we should be capped at 35 or 40 students per class in a country like Haiti," Manigat acknowledged.
"Unfortunately, in my country, many classrooms have 150, 200 students. Of these 200 students, barely 10 percent pass the class. Your children learn absolutely nothing."
Poor families have no choice but to put their children in public schools.
And overburdened classrooms are not the only obstacle to a good education. The quality of the teaching itself is lacking.
About 85 percent of currently active teachers have not received basic training for the job or need additional training.
"Given the level of teacher salaries, not many people are interested in joining the profession," Manigat said.
"The average salary is 20,000 gourdes ($390) per month. It's not a lot. It's not enough for someone to really make a living."
Not only are salaries low, but the government is often slow in getting the teachers paid. So each year, they inevitably go on strike.
"Last year, public schools lost a month and a half worth of school days," the minister said.
He recalled that in the neighboring Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, students went back to school on August 18.
"Guaranteeing 200 days of class is a challenge but we must get there. Delaying the start of the school year is not acceptable," Manigat said.
Seeking to improve the quality of teaching, and thus Haiti's competitiveness, the minister has launched major reform of educational programs, including adding civics and economics courses.
"When you love your country, you don't have a choice. Quality education is not just a slogan. It's essential for the country's survival," Manigat said.