PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — Cassandra Théodore, 17, is one of nearly 150 students who attend l’École de la Réussite, or the School of Success, in Haiti’s capital city.
But this is not an ordinary secondary school. Students here are learning skills like plumbing, tiling, masonry and hospitality, along with traditional subjects.
Students come here when they aren’t allowed to enroll in Haiti’s public secondary schools because they are too old.
“My parents and I were in despair every time we thought of my admission to secondary school, because I was overage and had no chance to get admitted to public school,” Cassandra says.
In Haiti, admission to public secondary school isn’t a given. Students must be 12 or 13 to be admitted into grade seven, the first year of secondary school. But poverty forces many youngsters in Haiti to start primary school late. A child might be helping the family with farmwork, or parents may not have money for transportation or school fees. These are among the reasons that children can’t start school at age 6. The strict age requirement to advance past sixth grade in public schools is one reason why so many Haitians don’t get an education beyond primary school, teachers and advocates say.
Marie Michelle Felicien, GPJ Haiti
For Cassandra, who completed sixth grade but was too old to advance to seventh grade, taking a course in tiling is exciting, because she can anticipate her future income. And she’s receiving tutoring in traditional subjects to help her meet the secondary school entry requirements at private schools that do not have the age prerequisite.
“Today, I don’t ask for a break on the weekends, because I hope soon to be a girl blessed with skills needed to succeed in the labor market,” she says. “I hope completing my studies will be a great way to become self-reliant.”
The École de la Réussite was started in 2012 to help overage students acquire vocational skills while they learn concepts needed for their acceptance into private secondary schools.
Overage students account for 72 percent of Haiti’s primary school population.
The overage rules came to be during the reform of the Haitian education system in the 1980s, which devised a way to offer basic education over a 9-year period. Teachers cite difficulties in classroom management when students of various ages are in the same grade, and numerous negative consequences of the overage system have been noted in research by UNESCO, UNICEF and others.
For instance, the system has been criticized because it restricts access to education for the majority of young people in Haiti. The overage policy is also a primary factor in the country’s high dropout rate, one UNESCO report states.
Nearly half of all Haitian students drop out, according to the World Bank. If students have to repeat a grade or take time off from school to help their families work or farm, there is little incentive for them to return to school when their age has made it impossible to advance past sixth grade, and when finances exclude private school as an option.
Marie Michelle Felicien, GPJ Haiti
“To me, no one chooses to be overage in school,” says Nadège Joachim, the former deputy mayor of Port-au-Prince who founded the École de la Réussite. “These students are just the result of the defective operation of the Haitian machinery, which is mirrored in parents’ poverty, child domestic work and lack of access to education in remote provinces.”
Despite these challenges, she says, the students who enroll at the school are highly motivated to learn. The combination of vocational training and preparation for applying to private schools is an important factor.
Ashley Parinis, 17, couldn’t advance past sixth grade because of his age.
“I used to spend my time socializing with my friends, playing football and wandering round the neighborhood,” he says. “The school helps me take my education more seriously.”
He is learning reinforced steel techniques.
“Today, the people in my neighborhood are starting to look at me from a different angle, and don’t hesitate to contact me for small jobs that match my skills,” he says.
That’s a common story, Joachim says.
“Vocational training helps them make some cash to afford to pay for their education and free themselves from the need to rely on their parents to go to private schools,” she says.
Evens Monpremier, 36, is an electrician who teaches at the École de la Réussite.
“I’ve been training these learners since 2012,” Monpremier says. “It’s a worthwhile initiative, because it’ll help reduce delinquency and teen pregnancy rates among our young learners. They will be able to take charge of their futures and become useful citizens of tomorrow.”
Rose Michelle Kettyna Bellabe, deputy mayor of Port-au-Prince, hopes that young people will begin to destigmatize vocational training and jobs.
“We hope to uproot the complex imbedded in young Haitians that pushes them to underestimate manual labor jobs,” she says.
Ultimately, the École de la Réussite exists to pave a new way forward for Haiti, Joachim says.
“This way, we’ll be able to eradicate educational marginalization across the country,” she says. “We can pave the way for an opportunity for everyone to do their bit to create a new Haiti.”
Ndahayo Sylvestre, GPJ, translated the article from French.