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Rebuilding a system that was already broken

Students attend a class inside the Plein Soleil all-boys elementary school in Port-au-Prince on the first day schools were allowed to re-open after the earthquake in Haiti.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Their classrooms are rubble. So are their houses - scattered around Port-au-Prince, most of them are living "sous les belles étoiles." Many of their professors are missing or dead.

But in the fissured remains of their university, these would-be teachers are planning a revolution. They sit at desks, taking scribbled notes as their rapid-fire ideas overlap one another over the sounds of 400 families living in tents outside, and one lone, loud rooster by the window. As Haiti's already inadequate education system lies in ruins - and with it, one of the country's best shots at sustainable development - these upstart students are among those who hope to reinvent what it means to learn in Haiti.

"We don't just want to rebuild. We want to begin over again," says Michel Fresner, a first-year education student at the Centre Formation d'Education Fondemontal.

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The students' ideas sound idealistic and far-fetched in a city of rubble, tent cities and aid convoys - especially when they don't know when they themselves can start classes again. But they figure they have to start somewhere.

Jean-Vernet Henry has seen the education system to which he dedicated his life crumble, literally, around his ears - entire faculties, and the students and internationally renowned professors who peopled them, reduced to rubble and corpses.

But sitting in the garden of his Pétionville office, an anomalous verdant oasis given the rubble across the street, the head of Haiti's largest university is circumspect about what a ruined education system means for the country, and what will have to be done to rebuild.

The first step is to assess the damage. And it's brutal.

Thousands of schools have been flattened by the quake. Although some schools in relatively unaffected areas opened on Monday, it will be months before any in hard-hit Port-au-Prince can reopen. Educators laugh at provisional targets of March for certain schools - will they be able to organize places to teach by then, let alone teaching materials? More pressing, will traumatized students - and teachers - be able to return?

"You can still smell the buried cadavers; students are afraid of going inside buildings. ... We need to try to return people to normal," Prof. Henry said.

"At the very least, we need to rebuild what we had before. But that's just the base: We are in the process of training people who will take our future in hand."

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At Prof. Henry's Université d'Etat d'Haiti in Port-au-Prince, all but one building was either destroyed completely or is in such a state of disrepair it would be madness to send anyone inside, let alone classes full of students.

The applied language faculty was levelled with hundreds of students and professors inside. Prof. Henry's own agronomy and veterinary studies department is entirely out of commission, although he still hopes to salvage some valuable lab equipment.

But the loss of that key faculty is one example of the myriad ripple effects of a decimated education system: The state university's agronomy department was in charge of quality control for virtually all the country's products, those destined both for the domestic market and feeding Haiti's export industry.

"When you lose this infrastructure, you lose a generation of educated kids. And the economic impact is serious," Prof. Henry said. "I don't see how we'll bounce back."

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