PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — When two men barged into Sherrie Fausey's school a few months after the earthquake and demanded all the food in the pantry, she calmly said no.
The men threatened to kill her.
"That's really sad," the 62-year-old said, matter-of-factly. "Because I'm going to heaven and you're going to prison."
The men ran away.
That's the kind of attitude — maybe it's brash American optimism — that has paid off for Fausey, a retired schoolteacher from Jacksonville. Her Christian school in Haiti was destroyed in the earthquake in January, and one child was killed. But classes have started again, more than a month before the rest of the country's schools.
Like everything else in post-earthquake Haiti — removing rubble, rebuilding government offices, putting people to work — the reconstruction of the education system is moving at a snail's pace. So in the meantime, it's up to private school owners like Fausey and other aid groups to improvise.
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Before the earthquake, few children in Haiti got beyond the sixth grade, and a million children didn't attend school at all. Most parents sent their children to private school, and the poorest parents paid up to half their income for a child's education.
Even then, schooling isn't extensive; one nonprofit figures that the average Haitian adult has about 2.8 years of education. Add these grim statistics to the picture — 40,000 students and 1,000 teachers died in the quake, and about 80 percent of school buildings in Port-au-Prince were destroyed — and the enormity of it all seems overwhelming.
Haitian officials have created a $95 million back-to-school plan as a stopgap for the next three months, part of a five-year, $4 billion overhaul. But the government has a large, messy task ahead, against a historical backdrop of corruption and mismanagement.
There are glimmers of hope, mixed with the realities of a scarred city.
Portable classrooms made out of 100 shipping containers are ready for students in the town of Leogane. USAID has helped build 230 transitional classrooms throughout Haiti, and about 120 U.S. Army-donated tents will house an additional 104 classrooms in 49 schools come October.
But most flattened schools still haven't been demolished in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, and unsafe school buildings sit vacant. At one pancaked school building, with bodies still inside, the director pitched tents for classrooms on what was once the roof — now about 2 feet off the ground.
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Fausey looks like a grandma. She's got tousled, strawberry blond hair, wire rim glasses and freckles. She has the air of the slightly stern teacher she once was — one who is quick to give a hug after piling on more homework.
In 1999, she retired from the Jacksonville school system and came to Haiti on a weeklong mission trip. Her only son was grown, and she sold her house in Florida to return to Haiti the same year. She didn't speak Creole, or French, but she wasn't concerned. God, she said, had told her to open a school.
In the years that followed, Fausey started a feeding program for a few hundred kids in the area, handed out prenatal and newborn vitamins to malnourished mothers in a nearby shantytown, and, in 2008, adopted 26 orphans who were stranded on a roof of a building after deadly floods.
Her school swelled to 214 students. She accepted only kindergarteners — that way they could begin their education with her curriculum and follow it through the years. The kids learned geography, math and the Bible, along with languages, science and history. She said her sixth-grade students had some of the highest test scores in the country, but because the entire education system is so disorganized — and destroyed by the quake — there's no way to know.
"This school is like a medicine for the kids," said Jossy Seriphin, a 25-year-old teacher at Fausey's school. "It's their life. It's their future."