School of hope

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


On the first day of Haiti’s academic year, Maria Halava meets the pupils and teachers of école Saint Matthieu in Léogâne, who will soon be rehoused in an inspiring new school.


A hot and humid Monday morning dawns on the courtyard of the École Saint Matthieu in the Haitian town of Léogâne, 17 km South West of the capital Port au Prince. A handful of children are sitting under plastic sheeting on the site of the former school building, which was severely damaged in the January 12 earthquake. They are waiting for school to start after a two month long summer vacation. 

“I’m happy to be back at school,” says 11-year-old Josette Jean Pierre, who is eager to start studying again. “Now I’m not even scared anymore,” she says.

Many children were traumatised by the earthquake, and their perception of the dangers caused when buildings collapse has affected their attitude to school. “Children reacted very differently after the earthquake. Some of them were very scared and they were crying during school. But, with the help of psychosocial support, we’ve been able to get them over it,” says Desdunes Junior, a French and Creole teacher at Saint Matthieu.

For now, classes at Saint Matthieu will be taught in the open air. But that is set to change at the end of October, when pupils and teachers will move to the smart new school that is being constructed on the other side of the road.  École Saint Matthieu has been chosen as the site of a pilot project in an innovative school-building programme run by ACT Alliance members Finn Church Aid (FCA) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). Their hope is that the pilot school will become a model that can be copied elsewhere: a practical, safe and inspiring environment in which children who have lived through extraordinary upheavals and distress can keep their hopes for a better future alive.     

The school has been designed and built in active consultation with the children and their parents. Local people have participated in planning the school at meetings held at the Episcopal Church of Haiti, a partner in the FCA and LWF project, and several mothers and fathers of future pupils have been hired to help with construction work.

The new school building will be built of earthquake debris and river stones, and is designed to be safe against hurricanes, floods and earthquakes. The learning environment will also be physically more harmonious and comfortable than that of its predecessor thanks to natural ventilation, temperature controls and lights. Disabled people have been taken into account in all phases of construction. 

“Children and teachers have chosen the colours, which will now be red and blue as in the Haitian flag and green as in the FCA logo”, says Reconstruction Manager Sari Kaipainen, of FCA. Shutters will be covered with words in Creole, French, English and Finnish, in response to local people’s requests. The children who will use the building have been told about the construction process, in order to make them feel safe about coming to school. They have also been informed about the differences they can expect between the old and the new school buildings so that they will feel comfortable in their new environment.

Desdunes Junior himself is expecting a modern school building with many different facilities. More space for children will give them more possibilities, he thinks.

The children are eagerly awaiting the new building.  “I hope the new school will be ready soon”, says Beauvois Spenley. The fourth-grader has been following the construction of the new school closely, and has high hopes for it.

“I wish we could have a computer class”, he says. Even though the 11-year-old has never used a computer before, he knows what he is talking about. “I would use the computer for making music”, he says, after thinking about it for a while.

But until the new school is finished, pupils and teachers must make the most of their lessons al fresco. Unfortunately, on the official first day of the new school year, few children have turned up.  After a while, those who are present have to be sent home.

“This is something we expected,” points out Desdunes Junior.  “Every year, students come back to school little by little. Tomorrow there will be a few more, the day after tomorrow a few more again.”
Lack of money is the main reason more students have not come. With many families still struggling to meet day-to-day needs, school fees and uniforms are extra demands they simply cannot meet. Despite these pressures, 314 students have enrolled for this academic year, already more than last year – a sign that Leogane’s children and their parents are enthusiastic about the opportunities the new school will bring.

Finn Church Aid (FCA) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), the ACT Alliance members helming the Leogane pilot school project, are now planning kitchens and community latrines for the school site, and are actively looking for partner organisations to carry out specific tasks, such as building rainwater collection facilities or biogas digesters.  Agencies and donors interested in contributing to the project should contact David Korpela at or tel +509 3702 0399.

Maria Halava of Finn Church Aid  is currently working as ACT’s media coordinator in Haiti.


Haiti: after the earthquake