Guy Etienne’s new approach to education gives Haitian students two key abilities—creating innovations in science and technology and the confidence, commitment and skills to help change communities. Each reinforces the other and comes from hands on experiences.
The New Idea
Etienne has designed and is spreading a new national education model that champions the development of innovative thinking, creativity, and teamwork among students from primary school through high school. His curriculum combines classroom learning with experience-based learning so that his students have opportunities to apply their learning to real community issues. Every year in the second semester, students must use their lessons to address community needs. Students practice self-reflection, gain self-confidence, develop their creativity, and become agents of change.
To raise community awareness of his model, Etienne strategically displays student projects at l’ExpoSciences, a science exposition at the end of each academic year; and thousands attend. Several projects have attracted national recognition, including during the oil embargo when a team designed a pentacycle, a non-motorized vehicle that students could use to get back and forth to school. Collaboration is a critical element of Etienne’s curriculum. The ability to work as part of a team is a fundamental skill, necessary if youth are to develop other essential skills and attitudes, such as task delegation, identity formation, self-expression, self-confidence, idea communication, tolerance, and creative compromise.
Importantly, Guy’s work is not limited to curriculum changes. Rather, he is building a broad national network of supporters, including parents, the Ministry of Education, companies and universities, to champion lasting educational reform. He seeks out first those who understand the need for new approaches in the 21st Century. Guy and his team have trained school directors across the country, along with 10 public servants in the Ministry. Many who they have trained are now training others. Guy’s goal is to have all teachers and school leaders feel equipped and motivated to change the system from within.
Haiti has one of the youngest populations in the world, but the traditional education system has failed to prepare many youth to address the social challenges they will inherit as adults. Haiti is one the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere, with 78 percent living below the poverty line and 40 percent suffering from food insecurity. It has also experienced cross-generational political insecurity, and is prone to natural disasters. These challenges exacerbate the difficulty of establishing programs to empower youth to lead change.
The education system suffers from inequity of access, infrastructure problems, and outdated or ineffective pedagogical methods. Poverty and marginalization keep many children and youth from rightfully accessing education of any kind. Indeed, thirty-eight percent of (primarily rural) children between the ages of 7 and 18 have never attended school. Only 15 percent of primary school teachers possess basic teaching certification, and 25 percent have not attended high school. Meanwhile, the majority of schools are in a state of serious deterioration and lack necessities such as drinking water and electricity. In addition, traditional education does not prepare students to tackle society’s challenges. Instead they learn by memorizing and reciting material from lectures. This does not facilitate student input, innovative thinking, creativity, or teamwork.
Etienne’s strategy is built on three pillars: engaging parents in building a new model, continually training school directors and teachers, and developing a nationwide system for rapidly replicating and creating opportunities for youth.
When Etienne’s father-in-law asked him to return to Haiti to lead the school Catts Pressoir, Etienne chose to give up his PhD for an opportunity to develop a new type of education, which, as he always envisioned, had to focus on combining innovation with community development. Although he had limited resources for the type of radical changes he intended, he quickly realized that to change society’s perceptions of education, he first needed the support of his students’ parents. Parental support for his model would allow him to modernize the school and provide a conduit between education and its application more broadly in the community. With this in mind, Etienne used common household materials, such as lemon juice, flowers, red cabbage, and soap, to conduct experiments and asked students to practice these experiments at home, demonstrating what they learned to their parents.
Similarly, Etienne focused on bringing visibility to the quality of the school. He required students to wear a white coat when they entered the lab, and when worn outside of school, spread the word that the school had a science laboratory. No detail was too small for his strategy. Etienne also printed the school newsletter, instead of writing it by hand, and he displayed the school’s first computer, which served to promote the school’s focus on high-quality science and innovation—worthy of a small tuition. Thus, Etienne was able to invest in additional technologies.
One of the most visible and groundbreaking decisions he made in terms of the curriculum was to incorporate opportunities for students to apply what they learned to solve community needs during a semester-long project. This remains the flagship of Etienne’s program, and is a requirement of all students. The projects take many forms and often leave a lasting mark. For example a team of 14- and 15-year-old students from a physics class built a traffic light; the first new traffic light built in Haiti in 20 years. In the process, they had to apply their creativity and communication skills, as they negotiated with the Ministry of Public Works to obtain a permit and convince two hardware stores to furnish the necessary materials. The traffic light caught the attention of Haiti’s President, who then replicated the idea and installed traffic lights in the entire city. The students were also invited by the Minister of Education to promote their initiative.
At the primary level, the biggest collaboration is a reforestation project to tackle the massive deforestation in Haiti. In 1923 more than 60 percent of the country was forested and by 2006 this amount was less than 2 percent. Students bring seeds to school that they have collected and sorted. The most hardworking students receive a citizenship award, and the class that collectively brings the most seeds is awarded the “Green Class” award. One student was able to collect 60,000 seeds over the course of a month by searching for them around her neighborhood. Her actions inspired her community to do the same. To ensure the proper use of the seeds, Catts Pressoir collaborates with community organizations that plant them. One organization uses cherry seeds to generate income for the community as they train local micro-entrepreneurs to process cherries. Since the start of the project, 1.2 million trees have been planted in ten communities. The reforestation project has been replicated in four schools and will soon be replicated in four more.
After the return of some political stability, Etienne shifted his strategy to expanding his model. Central to this has been the proper training of school directors and teachers. Etienne started by engaging parents to improve the school’s offerings by reaching out to parents with expertise in particular fields of work, such as physics and medicine to train teachers. To pique the interest of other schools he organized an annual scientific exposition; open to everyone, that profiled the results of his students’ projects, an activity which continues today. He also took the initiative to form the International Francophone Association of School Directors, which provides a formal channel for mobilizing school directors across Haiti to discuss strategies for modernizing education.
In a collaborative effort with the Ministry of Education, Etienne developed a TV program about frugal science teaching methods to promote creative teaching methodologies for teachers with limited resources. To ensure wide broadcasting, Etienne mobilized several embassies to fund the installation of solar-powered TV screens in public squares across Haiti. By demonstrating that experiments were feasible with the most limited resources he was able to reach even the most resistant teachers, who began to demand training sessions from the Ministry of Education, due to pressure from parents who had seen the broadcast. The program is still rerun today and Etienne plans to develop another series to keep up with new technology.
Similarly, Etienne mobilized funding to adapt Street Law’s publication Democracy for All, a civic education textbook for community development, for a Haitian audience; 40,000 copies have been printed and distributed across five regions along with teacher training, which Etienne conducted with several teachers. To encourage his own teachers to join him in the training tour, Etienne worked with the US Embassy to create opportunities for them to pursue short-term training sessions in the US. Etienne has effectively formed partnerships with schools and universities abroad to spread and improve the quality of teacher training. From 1998 to 2005, he coordinated a student exchange program with Bois de Boulogne, a pre-university and vocational college in Montreal, whereby Canadian students were placed in various schools across the country to train more teachers and speed up replication.
Together with the Ministry of Education, Etienne is spreading his model nationally by training 25 public school directors and 10 public servants in the Ministry. The objective is to train school directors and public servants who can in turn train other school directors, employing a network-based strategy. The program has two major components; the first is to empower staff members as partners in the transformation of the education system and second, is to provide them with applicable science and entrepreneurship training. Etienne is also working with the leading Haitian university, Quisqueya, to develop a degree for training and certifying teachers in innovative pedagogy. Etienne also works with the leading technical university, Higher School of Computer Electronics of Haiti (ESIH), and Haiti State University to establish the Haitian equivalent of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. They are also organizing mobile science labs to accelerate the training of teachers nationwide.
Additionally, Etienne is paving the way for engaging companies to invest in the country’s development. Companies realize that schools using his model are a source of young entrepreneurs, i.e. great potential hires. In response to growing corporate interest, he is launching a program that combines vocational and apprentice training with afternoon classes, in partnership with three major companies, which offer the apprenticeship programs. This partnership provides youth with the opportunity to work and continue their studies while it lowers the immediate costs of going to school. One business entrepreneur recently expressed interest in mobilizing some of the students to run one of his enterprises, a bakery that markets to low-income families.
Etienne is a recognized leader in education. For example he now serves as a jury member for the Digicel Entrepreneur of the Year Award, and is pressing Digicel to include a new award category for social entrepreneurship. He is also a regular guest on Haitian economist and thought leader Kesner Pharel’s weekly radio show, which broadcasts nationally. Etienne has been invited to become Minister of Education, but he feels that his impact is best achieved as director of Catts Pressoir.
Etienne’s vision for an innovative education system goes back to his childhood. When his parents divorced, his mother suffered a psychosomatic paralysis that lasted three years as a result of an intense argument with his father. Etienne assumed responsibility for the family, which included providing for his own education as well as that of his six siblings. Out of necessity, he became extremely resourceful, and in his own words a “jack-of-all-trades.” At age 12, he became a barber in his neighborhood. Etienne also helped his friends put together a play to earn money for their textbooks and uniforms; and tutored children in his neighborhood. In high school, the school director invited him to teach science to his younger peers. Etienne’s passion for science continued during university when he established the first university lab by refurbishing a lab the French Institute was closing.
Etienne believed the existing education system was not empowering young people to generate positive change in their own lives or in society. Rather than developing an antagonism toward education, however, it convinced him that education is essential for advancement and that others should have easier access than he did. Etienne’s dissatisfaction with the education system later evolved into his ambition to prove that the development of a quality education system is critical for the development of Haiti.
Etienne went to France to pursue a PhD and expected to return to Haiti to produce herbal medicine, to reduce Haiti’s dependence on expensive imported prescription drugs. However, necessity brought him another call; his father-in-law summoned him to return to Haiti to replace him as Headmaster of Catts Pressoir, or the school would close. Etienne returned to Haiti and let go of a personal dream for the opportunity to develop a new dream.