Change in education brings 'Hope for Haiti'

New school considered most important education investment outside Port-au-Prince

By Glenna Milberg - Reporter

SAINT-MARC, Haiti - More than four years after Haiti's devastating earthquake, Haiti's substandard schools remain a roadblock to its progress. But the opening of one new school there may begin a seismic change in education, and this "Hope for Haiti" comes with South Florida connections.

Local 10's Glenna Milberg traveled to Saint-Marc, about a two-hour drive north of Port-au-Prince, for the school's official opening.

On the way from Port-au-Prince to Saint-Marc, there are still miles of tents, shacks, scavenged wood and corrugated metal. Some half-built homes still sprout rusting rebar. Even four years after Haiti's earthquake, it is still a crumbled and struggling country.

Half of Haitian children do not go to school.

"The families are so poor," said teacher Roland Pierre Louis. "Sometimes they leave the countryside and enter in the city to ask for money. That's the way it is."

Now, a new school -- what some may call a lifeline -- may become a post-earthquake seismic shift for Haiti, starting with the children.

Happy, engaged, curious and confident, the students at the new Lycee John Baptiste Point Du Sable are getting college-prep education, including classes where they will learn French, Creole and English.

For the students, it's all expenses paid -- uniforms, books, even meals provided -- in a hurricane-proof, earthquake-resistant, sustainable school, with international teachers and best practices.

The curriculum is infused with Haitian culture and pride.

"I always wanted to come back to where my family is from and give back to Haiti," said teacher Rene Genevieve.

The school is solar-powered and for now they import water. The school is all built and run by private donations, organized by people in the U.S. -- retail/travel industries, a significant number of them in South Florida.

"It was a matter of finding a community that had a vision for itself and that was ready to welcome that time of project," said Olivier Bottrie, with Lycee John Baptiste Point Du Sable.

After the earthquake, Bottrie spent a month looking for a site for the school, and found it in the cracked dry hills of Saint-Marc.

"It's a complex country, as you know," Bottrie said. "(There are) welcoming people but the politics are pretty complicated."

The school is now considered by Haitian leaders as the most important education investment outside Port-au-Prince.

Haiti's president, Michel Martelly, attended its official opening.

"In these kids I see kids who are just at the beginning of their studies but seem to be brighter than kids who are finished school in the past and do not know much," Martelly said.

"My first thought was that it was an amazing opportunity to make a difference to the country," said Benny Klepach, a South Florida philanthropist.

To bring change to children, Klepach is part of the South Florida Connection, a company that has given millions in donations, priceless intentions to protect the future of a country so important and so connected to so many in South Florida.

Due to the limited space in the new school, everyone has to apply, and they are chosen based on scholarship. Because those who choose the students know where the kids are going back to, they want the future leaders of Haiti to come from the new school.

The school is now Saint-Marc's major employer with 80 new jobs, and the school is also growing a farming industry by reforesting land stripped bare for firewood.

"We're not talking about spending money, we're talking about saving kids," said Martelly. "We're talking about giving life, we're talking about changing the environment."

And they're talking about replicating the model of the school to produce Haiti's next generation of leaders.

There is one requirement for the graduates at the school -- they must agree to stay in Haiti, to put their education and leadership skills toward Haiti's growth and progress.

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