Cruise line builds school in Haiti, finds it has a lot to learn

Royal Caribbean Cruises, the corporation based in Miami, has built a school complex just outside the company’s resort in Labadie, Haiti. While residents seem to agree the school is a boon to the community, the praise is tempered by doubts, as Sarah Maslin writes for the New York Times.

On a jungle-covered hill, about 25 Creole-speaking kindergartners chanted numbers inside a gleaming classroom, the ceiling laced with clotheslines of paper butterflies. Past noon, they spilled into the courtyard to dash across the gravel in a blur of blue and cream uniforms, each one embroidered with an anchor and the school’s unusual name: “École Nouvelle Royal Caribbean,” or the New Royal Caribbean School.

For years, Royal Caribbean Cruises, the corporation based in Miami, has run a private resort on a sandy promontory nearby, a playground of lounge chairs, bars and even an alpine coaster that shoots guests though the forest.

The company has leased the 260 beachfront acres, about 90 miles north of the nation’s capital, Port-au-Prince, from the government since 1986. Several times a week, up to 7,000 people descend for the day when mega ships berth in Labadie on a new $34 million pier, offering a dizzying contrast to the poverty beyond the gates.

But since the January 2010 earthquake that devastated the capital, the cruise line evoked harsh criticism when it resumed docking pleasure ships at the resort for frolicking vacationers, six days after the quake killed up to 300,000 people, according to Haitian officials, and left more than 1 million homeless.

The company opened the cheery, citrus-color school complex just outside the resort’s heavily guarded chain-link fences in October, a move Royal Caribbean representatives said it was considering before the disaster and the scathing publicity it received.

“We’ve been there for a long time and of course the problems in Haiti are enormous, and it’s hard for anyone to really make a significant dent in them,” said Richard Fain, the company’s chairman and chief executive. “We thought one of the places to start was with education.”

Still, the assistance was “modest,” he added. “We are a business. We’re not a charitable organization.”

Other projects include a water-distribution system in the village of Labadie, said John Weis, an associate vice president. After the quake, the company donated about $2 million and helped import relief supplies.

“I’m not saying we do this because it’s a completely altruistic motivation, but I think that our management feels that we have a responsibility to make a difference down here,” Weis said

Critics speak up

While residents seem to agree the school is a boon to the community, the praise is tempered by doubts. Its mountainous location is far from the towns it serves, and its failure to provide any meals — leaving many children hungry — has critics wondering why the company has not done more.

The World Food Program provided some food, but the company discontinued lunch a few months ago, citing sanitary concerns in preparation. A kitchen is being planned, but for now only a handful of parents can afford to provide lunch for their children, several teachers said.

The vast majority of the 200 or so students do not eat anything from early morning until they get home after school, teachers said. Some students fall asleep at their desks from fatigue.

“The school was built for underprivileged kids, but the way the school is functioning, it is for the bourgeois,” said Paul Herns, 29, who teaches fifth grade. He echoed a common sentiment: gratitude mixed with the feeling that the company, which had revenues of $6.8 billion last year, could do a lot better.

“Royal promised a school that was to be different from other ones in Haiti, similar to schools abroad,” Herns said. “Where children are fed and have access to sporting activities and taught some English skills to speak to foreigners; where they can surf the Web. These services have not yet been provided.”

Weis said meals were not promised.

The school itself is stunning and serene, a clean-swept haven from the several surrounding towns from which the students hail, where streets are choked with trash and the smoke of plastic bottles burning. It houses kindergarten through fifth grade and is run by a nonprofit group founded and led by Maryse Penette-Kedar, a former minister of tourism and president of Royal Caribbean’s operations in Haiti.

Students are chosen by lottery and about 20 percent are children of the company’s local employees.

“The vision is that we’ll connect the education and the jobs together,” Weis said. “We’ll have a steady supply of well-educated people, and they’ll be prepared to work on board the ship.”

Hourlong commute

The school cost about $550,000 to build and equip, according to Weis, and Royal Caribbean spends nearly $200,000 each year to run it. For this school, there is a $5 a month tuition, a fee organizers say they imposed to create a sense of stewardship among the families.

It is a far cry from local schools such as L’École Nationale Mixte in neighboring Fort Bourgeois, where splintering desks teeter on dirt floors behind doors of rusted sheets of corrugated metal, and rain pours through the roof, canceling classes. But because of a decision to build on hilltop land controlled by the cruise line, rather than restore schools or build new ones within a community, it is also remote.

Many students commute piled into the backs of pickup trucks, or “tap-taps,” the jalopies that serve as taxis, which the company says it subsidizes, even though parents say they pay extra out of pocket. The company provided bus service but canceled it because the costs came to $15,000, the vehicles were shoddy and the rutted mountain roads are dangerous. The company plans to restart and improve the service.

Some students such as Rodman Decius, 13, whose mother, Immacula Caprice, 39, cannot work since losing a foot to an infection, said they cannot always afford even subsidized transport. In late March after school, Rodman showed a reporter his hourlong commute marching home through jungle paths, at points clambering along a cliff face with a sheer drop to sea. His walk took him past several schools. He said he had last eaten 10 hours ago.

Residents such as Eddy Hippolyte, a taxi driver, said that some people feel that rather than build a showpiece, the company should have improved existing schools.

But others, such as Jacques Renelle, 37, who teaches kindergarten, are more supportive. “The overall good outweighs these irregularities,” she said.

Weis is rankled by what he sees as the “give-an-inch-take-a-mile” attitude he thinks the company’s charity work engenders. “We have a responsibility to the community that we’re in,” he said. “But it’s not unlimited.”

For students, who often spend recess kicking an empty plastic bottle around the school’s outdoor tables, the shining school is not the only oasis they know. The resort lies just down the road, cut off by a fence. “I wish I could play there,” Rodman says, “But I don’t have any money.”

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