Adapting Education to Tent City Life

Alzire Rocourt teaches students in post-earthquake Haiti. Image by Paul Franz. Haiti, 2010.

Alzire Rocourt has a passion for teaching.

Working with nothing but her sweet voice, an old chalkboard and some cardboard posters, Rocourt teaches Haitian children about the music of Chopin, Beethoven and other classical composers.

"School has become for them the way to hope," she said.

The kids actively engage. Even though many have never before heard the music of the classical composers, Rocourt easily holds the attention of some 30 tent city students who have gathered inside her tent classroom.

One student walks to the front of the classroom and holds up a poster. Decorated with pictures from 19th century Europe, a timeline shows the progression of classical music from Haydn to Brahms.

Rocourt, a former nurse and singer, teaches the children the basics of rhythm. She doesn't need computers or digital projectors—her students are captivated by her singing voice.

But behind the confidence and passion of Rocourt's classroom style, she harbors deep fears for the future of her country and its youth.

"We are ending up with a nation where everyone is a child," she said. "There are those who say Haitian independence was a great deed, but what have we done of it?"

More than nine million people live in Haiti, and about 65 percent of them are under the age of 30. Haiti's best and brightest flee the country to better opportunities abroad.

Maryse Kedar, director of ProDev Haiti, a non-governmental organization that builds schools and trains teachers, believes that Haiti's youthful demographic presents the largest challenge for reforming education in her country now.

"This moment, post-earthquake, is probably the second most-important moment after the founding of the republic," she said from her office in downtown Port-au-Prince last month. "We could lose an entire generation."

But Kedar is worried that the country's large number of young people will come of age lacking even the most basic education and skills.

Jean-Philippe André, a father of eight, already fears that his children are growing up knowing only how to do field work.

André lives in the tent city of Canaan, a refugee camp located near the Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince. A few months ago, Canaan had just one tent school to teach younger children.

"But it's gone now," André said. "All we do now is use our machetes and cut plants in the fields."

Canaan is home to about 30,000 refugees from the January earthquake. It's likely that the temporary homes and tents will become permanent housing, according to Rafael Achondo, a director for Un Techo Para Mi Pais, a Chilean aid organization building quake-proof housing for displaced Haitians.

Rocourt, the music teacher, is resigned to the fact that many Haitians will continue to live in tent cities for years to come, but says this shouldn't prevent the country's children from getting some education, even if it's under the shade of a tree or in a tent.

She also says that reforming the country's failing education system ought to be a matter of national duty and pride.

"Eight million people that are swimming in poverty does not prove we are a nation," she said.