Inspiration and Heartbreak – My Two Days in Haiti

Secretary Duncan in Haitian ClassroomSeveral months ago, Vanneur Pierre, Haitian Minister of National Education and Vocational Training, invited me to visit his country and see firsthand a glimpse into the Haitian education system.  Since the devastating earthquake hit in 2010 the U.S. Government has pledged its support as Haiti seeks to rebuild its economy and infrastructure, including its education system.  The two days I spent in Haiti were inspiring and heartbreaking.  From a school that is educating kids that live on the streets during the day to a hundred children crammed into a 7th grade classroom, the thirst and hunger for learning was incredible.

Along with visiting three schools, I had the opportunity to join USAID Associate Administrator Mark Feierstein and Senior Advisor for International Education Christie Vilsack to announce a multi-million dollar program in Haiti for USAID’s Room to Learn. This program will help to support equitable access for vulnerable children.

Each school we visited, while lacking modern amenities was full of an entrepreneurial spirit and will to learn. The school buildings were unlike anything we could imagine in this country.  Most were semi-outdoor structures with little or no electricity and stark dusty walls with paint generations old. No fancy gyms, libraries or cafeterias to see, only brick, mortar and gravel to make up the landscape. Each student sat at a desk or on a bench attentively looking towards the front of the room.  Classroom after classroom, student after student, each was focused on the lesson plan of the day.  When the teacher spoke, you could hear a pin drop.

Duncan Playing BasketballThe first school we visited was Ecole St. Jean de Dieu, which is part of the Minister’s initiative to promote access for vulnerable school-aged children who are outside of the education system.  Most of the students at this school are homeless and live on the streets during the day but attend classes in the afternoons.  I met 16 year olds who were in the second grade, far behind where they should be but trying to get an education to build a better life.

While traveling through Haiti I also had the opportunity to visit the Haitian Education and Leadership Program (HELP) program which provides university scholarships in Haiti for straight-A students from disadvantaged backgrounds. One student, overcome by her past, cried as she told me about her life’s journey.   I sat and listened to the passionate and personal stories of students in this program discussed how their world was changed as a result of the opportunity to continue their education.

I visited another school, Ecole Nationale de Tabarre, an outdoor set of buildings, where I witnessed students reading books in their native tongue of creole donated by USAID’s read to learn program to make education more accessible for all children.  From there we went to Lycee de Petionville, one of Haiti’s model high schools.  I saw a classroom of over 100 7th graders packed into a room built for 30-40.  After visiting some classrooms, I joined the basketball team for a brief scrimmage in the school’s cement courtyard and basketball court.  It was a remarkable sight to see, two and three stories up an entire school looking down on the court.

The future of Haiti was looking down on me.  I saw hundreds of eyes, full of optimism and hope for a better tomorrow recognizing that having a strong education can put you on a path to a better life.  These children, like other Haitian children across the country, want an education and are willing to try despite the odds against them.

It’s inspiring to see so many children, teachers, and national leaders committed to making much needed investments in Haiti’s next generation.  Parents and leaders in the U.S. and Haiti share a common desire to create a high quality education system for all that adequately prepares our children for success in their personal and professional lives. A strong Haiti can be built by a strong education system and a strong ministry of education.  I want to continue being a good partner with President Michel Martelly, Minister Pierre and the entire Haitian government to strengthen the nation, one child at a time.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education        


  1. Mr. Secretary,
    I am glad to read about your trip to Haiti. I am wondering whether you ask the Haitian leaders you met about their philosophy of education? Do they have a plan to improve education or to just keep it running as it is? If they have a plan for improvement, is it likely to lead to real change in educating the people of that country? I hope you will read my post and you will take a few minutes of your time to initiate a discussion about how the USA can really be of assistance to Haiti in regard to education, which is an essential ingredient in the recipe for development.

  2. It is great to see an active collaboration between our national education system and Haiti. My father is a principal at a grade school in Indiana. A few years before the earthquake he decided to partner with another school in Haiti. After the earthquake, there was an influx in donations, and they were able to expand to several more schools around the country. This collaboration has had an incredible impact with the schools in the region through donated books, equipment, and building expansion. It has also greatly impacted the students of my father’s school. They have been opened up to a new culture and have regular contact with the partner schools. The students have become more appreciative of what they have and the importance of sharing with those that need help.

  3. You only got a small taste of it, by not traveling outside of Port au Prince. Go to the country or the mountains and you will see even sadder conditions. Thank you for wanting to assist. Now if they could just get jobs once they graduate.

  4. While there, you also apparently said, “One of the many needs here are clear data systems, having transparency, knowing basic things, like how many children we have, how many schools there are, how many teachers we have. I think it’s so important that everybody be transparent and honest on the good, the bad and the ugly.”

    Because data systems are exactly what some of the poorest children on the planet need. It’s more important to know how many children and schools and teachers we have than it is to have books or classrooms or seats or running water? Seriously? And on what infrastructure do you propose they are to put such a thing, and why would they spend the money on such a thing instead of on improving the heartbreaking conditions you have just spent an entire blog post describing?

    Methinks you need a serious reality check, sir.

    • Thank you, Mr. Secretary for sharing your impressions. Three suggestions for US support on the education issues in Haiti:1. Youth census – information made available to NGOs working to improve education in Haiti need to work in partnership with the Haitian government on where children live and what schools they can attend. Outreach to the groups building private schools – they all need to collaborate in a region/town/city together. There is NO infrastructure. Develop a school administrator exchange program to build their national education capacity.

      2. Books, books, books. The curriculum is not readily available to most children, they have to purchase the materials and they are simply not available. Books need to be air dropped across the entire country. In the markets, french books from the 1960s are being sold to students. Then teachers will have tools to teach to those materials. Or at least learn what they are supposed to teach. My experience is in the rural communities, the books are from the 1960s and in french.

      3. Teacher development programs, teach the adults in Haiti to teach the children. Too many americans and foreigners who do not speak Creole in the classrooms will not help Haitians in the long run.

      Last, corruption is a concern – it is still legal to sell your child in Haiti with the restavec system. Young women do not go forward in education, they are sold as workers and worse. This needs to be addressed.

  5. It is so heartening to learn that the US Government and Secretary Duncan have remained focused on this fragile country and its children. Thank you for making time for this visit.

  6. its great to see the country has recovered from such a terrible natural disaster, hopefully the hard work of all the people will make the living better

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