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What U.S. Catholic Schools Can Learn from Education in Haiti

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

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Without windows.

Without lights.

Oftentimes without basic school supplies.

As we visited Catholic schools in Port-au-Prince, I found myself wishing there was something we could do to provide these children with the type of education that many of us experienced, an education where so many things are provided and even taken for granted.

Arriving back in the United States after spending a week in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, it’s hard for me to describe the experience as anything but shocking. Though surrounded by Haitian educators and leaders filled with optimism and hope, I was focused on the striking differences between our daily lives in the U.S. and the daily lives of most Haitians.

"I was blown away by the immense gratitude that the children we met in Haiti showed, simply for the ability to receive an education."

Based on research that has been done both in the United States and elsewhere, many Haitian Catholic schools are attempting to improve by focusing on early-childhood literacy and teacher training, along with other, Haiti-specific needs like improved health care for students.

Despite the list of challenges, Haitian Catholic schools have a lot to teach us in the American school system.

Education is a right, but it’s also a privilege.

We believe that all children deserve access to a high-quality education, but receiving that education is also a privilege that paves the way for a better life for students and a better society overall. Even so, I can distinctly remember times throughout my childhood that I saw going to school as an obligation, a chore that just wasn’t that appealing. I don’t think I’d be lying if I said that some of my teachers probably felt the same way.

I was blown away by the immense gratitude that the children we met in Haiti showed, simply for the ability to receive an education. For example, some students travel two hours to get to school every day—either on foot or on the back of rickety, open-backed taxis called “tap-taps”—and study by street light when they return in the dark to homes without consistent electricity.

Catholic schools around the world serve as a safe haven for children, a place where students come to grow, learn, and where they find the determination to make a difference in their own lives, the lives of their families, and for their country as a whole. While this is true everywhere, it seemed as though the students in Haiti were intimately aware of the privilege they had been provided. 

All challenges bring the opportunity for change.

"Catholic schools around the world serve as a safe haven for children, a place where students come to grow, learn, and where they find the determination to make a difference in their own lives, the lives of their families, and for their country as a whole."

Many people in Haiti have experienced and continue to experience challenges that most of us will never face. But in my short time there, I was struck by an overwhelming sense of optimism and possibility. Leaders—both in Haiti and those who have spent significant time there working with schools—are confident that positive steps are being made to make real, substantial changes in the way Haitian children are educated, starting from the earliest grades.

The challenges faced by schools in Haiti and other countries around the world also provide opportunities to look for solutions that can be effective, scalable, and sustainable, and Catholic schools in particular are taking up the mantle of driving this change. Most school mottos around Haiti include lines about rebuilding Haiti or building leaders of Haiti, and many of the parents we spoke with were certain that education was the key to their children’s future success.

How easy would it have been to use the devastation of the earthquake—which set back an already deeply impoverished nation—as an excuse? Leaders in Haiti see it as an opportunity for systematic and sustainable improvement. When we look at the monumental task we, as education reformers, face in building schools that serve every child to the fullest, we should look to those in Haiti as a great example of how to embrace the challenges and fight for a better future for our children with optimism and a greater sense of the possible.