Responses keep coming to A School Is Not A Building. Even made the home page of OLPC News, with comments as well.

I was talking yesterday with a woman down in Haiti, with considerable experience helping education down there. She’s been reading the responses and said, “Do the people responding have any idea what it’s like in Haiti?”

The answer is “Not really,” but that’s not anyone’s fault. It’s our job to make the picture clearer, to provide context enough to cross the culture shock. So in this post, I’ll address the realities of building schools in Haiti.

But first, here’s a video I watched today, which made me feel better after last night’s violence. The chorus of children singing “We’re okay” feels exactly right. As awful as the adult world gets, the children of Haiti are miraculous.

Okay, so what does it take to build a school in Haiti? Well, first you have to buy the land. Contrary to what you might think, land is crazy expensive in the Port-au-Prince region. This isn’t surprising when you consider that 1.5 million people have no homes right now. People aren’t selling, and if they are, they’re charging premium prices. The school I visited near the US Embassy paid $2 million for 16 acres, which is actually pretty good, but it’s still $125,000 per acre. Yes, this is premium property in a very desirable location. Let’s use a number of $50,000 for an acre, assuming we can fit a small school within the acre.

With land bought, it’s time to get materials to the location. Let’s just say that the right materials, those that can withstand an earthquake, are a little hard to come by. Even if you get a terrific deal in a place like Miami, shipping them and getting them through customs is non-trivial, and very expensive (40% markup for customs). So why not use concrete or stone, you say? Well, a large portion of the population won’t allow their kids to sit underneath concrete, even now.

Haiti Partners built two new schools with steel, after the earthquake. Here’s one that I visited in Darbonne:

Such a school, which can accommodate as many as 250 kids, cost $75,000 to build. Adding the cost of land, we’re at $125,000, or $500 a child to get started. Add to this the yearly costs of running the school, which runs about $125,000 for a school that serves food to the children. Now we’re at $250,000 for the first year of school, or $1000 per child that first year and $500 a year thereafter. Multiply this by 20 for a typical class, and we’ve got $20,000 for the first year and $10,000 a year thereafter. These numbers include food and electricity but not Internet.

One estimate for school age children is three million. Current schools can accommodate no more than 800,000, so that’s 2.2 million without a seat at school. A little math leads us to some very large numbers if we want to build schools for all of these children and pay for them year after year.

But what if we didn’t build schools? What if we used existing structures, temporary structures, or even a circle of chairs as we did in Léogâne? Given my numbers for micro schools, that yields $350 startup costs per student (a savings of $650 per student) and yearly costs of $750 per student, which is $250 more than the school numbers. Okay, so that last number needs work. We can probably get monthly costs down to $1000 as well, though remember we’re providing Internet.

So let’s do the math … 2.2 million students x $1000 to build schools = 2.2 billion dollars versus 2.2 million students x $350 = 770 million dollars. That’s a difference of 1.43 billion dollars to get started. Assume we keep ongoing costs the same, even with Internet.

Yes, there will be savings should massive building takes place, just as there would be savings should 2.2 million laptops are shipped. No, I don’t know how much this would alter the numbers. For now, take these ballpark figures for what they are: a big enough reason for micro schools to justify an investigation of the idea. Saving 1.5 billion is a pretty compelling reason.

There are better reasons though, which have to do with what each child gets from a typical school versus what they get from a laptop-centered school.

But that’s another post.

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