TO those hoping to improve Haiti's education, visiting the Alexandre Petion school here is like receiving a whack of the schoolmaster's paddle. The hard reality is that schools here are impoverished and reform will be long and difficult.
At Petion, one of Haiti's oldest and traditionally best public schools, masses of elementary students mill about the courtyard when they should be in class. More than two weeks into new school year, some students have not had any classes because their teachers have yet to show up.
Inside, those fortunate enough to have teachers sit on crude benches before warped chalkboards. Daylight streams through rotted sections of wooden walls. Weeds grow with impunity on the outer walls.
It is not just Haitian school buildings that need massive help,'' says Elizabeth Gibbons, UNICEF representative in Haiti. ``The learning achievement is very, very poor. This is the worst in the hemisphere by far and almost the worst in the world.''
The statistics are grim. Half to three-quarters of Haiti's adults are illiterate. An estimated 1 million children - a seventh of the country's population - have never attended school.
Two-thirds of the children who do attend drop out before they finish sixth grade, according to UNESCO. More pessimistic estimates put the dropout figure closer to 9 out of 10, levels approaching those of the worst African countries, Ms. Gibbons says.
Development officials agree that reforming education is key to Haiti's future. But like so many other state institutions in Haiti - the police and military, the judiciary, and the water and telephone services - the school system will have to be rebuilt almost from scratch. ``We have to do everything,'' says Kesler Jean-Charles, who heads Petion's primary section.
Haiti's interim education minister, Victor Benoit, says the government of recently restored President Jean-Bertrand Aristide will have to move on several fronts:
* Teacher training is inadequate, UNICEF says. In some rural areas, more than eight out of 10 teachers have not completed secondary school.
* The Ministry of Education has been so starved for funds that many of Haiti's public schools cut back operations or closed altogether over the three years of military rule and the United Nations embargo. More than 70 percent of the nation's schools are now privately run.
* Curriculum reforms, approved in the mid-1980s, still have not been implemented consistently, according to Mr. Benoit. One reform would make the Creole language equal to French in the classroom, making education more accessible to the majority of Haitians who speak only Creole.
Where to start?
To solve the education crisis here, Paul Latortue, an economist and part-time adviser to President Aristide, advocates beginning outside the classroom.
Instead of launching a massive buildup of public schools, he says, the government should pay private schools to do the job while it tries to gain control of Haiti's economy. ``The first thing is for the parents to find work,'' Benoit says.
Military rule and the resulting three-year embargo so impoverished parents that many of them can no longer afford the $25 to $50 needed to send their children to private school.
UNICEF officials say that many families try to divide their meager resources, pulling one child out of the classroom after a couple years so that a brother or sister can attend.
UNICEF has launched an international appeal to raise $3 million to equip about 860,000 Haitian students with packets of basic school supplies and to help train 10,000 teachers and 2,500 principals.
Last week, Benoit, a former student here at the Petion school, returned to give students the first packets donated by UNICEF. Each packet contains a slate board, pencil, pen, eraser, sketch pad, and notebooks - things the average family would be hard-pressed to afford.
The Haitian system has some positive aspects. Families encourage girls as well as boys to attend school, whereas in many other developing nations educating boys is the priority. Haiti's ratio of teacher to student is 1 to 35, which development advocates considered adequate.
Most encouraging of all, the demand for education appears to be on the rise, UNICEF reports.
The desire is certainly evident here at Petion.
``I am happy because I want to learn,'' says 12-year-old Derisson Garcia, who has had three years of schooling.
``We don't want to spend our lives playing,'' adds Thomas Colin a 17-year-old who has not yet completed primary school.
UNICEF officials are also upbeat, but they acknowledge the tremendous obstacles ahead.
``It's going to require enormous investment, stability, and of course a lot of hard work by a lot of people, but I'm very optimistic,'' Gibbons says. ``I think Haiti can go a long way in a short time because the people want it.''