As crowds of Haitians spilled out of church services last week marking the second anniversary of the earthquake which killed more than 300,000 of their compatriots, work was nearing completion on World ORT's new vocational school which, in a small but significant way, will be an answer to some of their prayers. When it opens in the capital Port-au-Prince in the coming months, the school will fill a glaring gap in the country's reconstruction effort. "Haiti is in desperate need of qualified manpower for the physical reconstruction of the country as well as for the rehabilitation of the crumbling economy," said the Head of World ORT's International Cooperation office in Geneva, Daniel Kahn. "The vocational education system for Haiti's youth, weakened by years by a lack of funds and infrastructure, finally collapsed last year, unable to withstand the devastation of the earthquake. Ours will be the only vocational school in the capital."
The new school is World ORT's second project in Haiti; its programme to train construction workers in earthquake-resistant building techniques is drawing to a close after benefiting more than double the original goal of 700 graduates, thanks to new partnerships with UNESCO, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Fondation de France.
"The fact that the programme has been duplicated in other parts of Haiti shows that we were right," Mr Kahn said. "We're now producing a handbook for builders on anti-seismic techniques in French and Creole and developing a media campaign to raise public awareness of the need to use these techniques – we've had instances of contractors complaining that our graduates insist on using the superior techniques they have learned with us."
Rebuilding the country has been a slow process not made easier by international aid donors delivering little more than half the $4.5 billion pledged in 2010-11. But Mr Kahn says there are signs of real progress now. Unicef, for example, reports that more than a quarter of the 4,000 schools destroyed or damaged in the earthquake have been repaired or rebuilt, benefitting tens of thousands of children.
But in a country where only 12 children finish 12th grade out of every 1,000 who start first grade, World ORT's school responds to the urgent need for an alternative to the traditional academic system, giving those who lack educational qualifications the means to secure a better future for themselves.
Funded by the Mexican Alliance for Haiti and the JDC, the school is part of a large, beautiful campus belonging to World ORT's local partner, Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos (NPH), and will initially offer places for 100 youths: nursing and telecoms courses for those who have completed 12th grade education and plumbing and carpentry for those who left full time education after the 9th grade.
Capacity will more than double by next year, with 250 students aged between 15 and 22, pursuing one-year diploma courses in building, electrician's and secretarial skills as well as those mentioned above.
"Many of the students will be referred to the school via NPH institutions, such as orphanages," Mr Kahn said. "In accordance with NPH and World ORT's mission in Haiti, priority will be given to those students from the neediest sectors of the population."
NPH and the Mexican Alliance have given World ORT carte blanche to define and implement the education and training and the result is the introduction to Haiti of a vocational model in which students alternate weekly between the classroom and the workplace.
"Not only is this a very good way to train workers the time spent in the workplace means that, on graduation, they have real experience in addition to their diploma – and that is a huge help when it comes to finding a job," Mr Kahn said.
The ORT vocational school in Rue des Rosiers, Paris, uses the system to great effect – more than 90 per cent of the young, disadvantaged people it trains graduate successfully and more than 80 per cent of them are employed by their host companies. It is helping to implement the system in Port-au-Prince and will also be available to train the new school's teachers.
"Young people are the foundations upon which a nation stands and this new school is an opportunity to share our long and proven experience in educating for employment with the youth of Haiti," said Mr Kahn. "It will not only train them in the skills most needed by their country but it will be a reference to be duplicated around the country, like our anti-seismic building programme has been."