School of Education alumna returns home in Haiti’s time of need

When her mother called from Haiti soon after the earthquake hit January 12, Gaëlle Simon ’00 knew her family and home were safe. It wasn’t until she returned to her Washington, D.C, home that night and turned on CNN that she realized the enormity of the situation. Within weeks, she would see the devastation firsthand, returning to her homeland as part of a team from Global Relief Technologies (GRT), a company that uses mapping, satellite imagery, and satellite communications to collect information for organizations involved in relief efforts. “Downtown Port-au-Prince—the political and economic heart of the country—is completely destroyed,” Simon says. “It’s heartbreaking. We still don’t have a clear picture of how to recover.”

Last summer, Simon had been working with GRT mapping schools in Haiti. After the earthquake, she met back up with the company to assist in its latest mission: creating a central database of Haitian amputees for manufacturers around the world that will create custom prosthetics. She has been traveling with a group visiting hospitals and other health care centers. They assess each amputee and enter their information into handheld devices that transmit the information back to GRT headquarters in New Hampshire. Simon stressed the importance of understanding and organizing the rehabilitation needs for these victims. “These amputees need access to housing and public places like supermarkets. It’s not like the U.S. In Haiti there are rarely handicapped ramps,” she says.

Simon came to the United States from Haiti to attend the School of Education. She returned home each summer to volunteer in schools. After graduating from SU, Simon attended the Harvard Graduate School of Education and earned a master’s degree in education policy in 2001. Simon had planned to teach after graduation, but after attending Harvard, her interests shifted to policy. She was further inspired to pursue a job in education policy while volunteering as a teacher in rural Namibia in 2002. She saw firsthand the problems in education that were much larger than the classroom—failings that involved the bureaucratic structure and policy of the school system.

Since then, she has worked with the Education Development Center (EDC) and the American Institutes for Research (AIR) on education projects in Africa and Haiti. While working with the EDC, Simon developed an accelerated learning program for Haitian students aged 12 to 18 who were too old to attend primary school, but wanted to enter secondary school. The program allowed students to complete six grades in three years and return back to school. She also helped develop distance-learning programs in Haiti and Africa.

As the project manager for a $27 million AIR-led education project in Haiti, Simon first paired up with GRT in August 2009, contracting them to create a geographic information system (GIS) map of schools in Haiti. “We traveled to Haitian schools, entered their global positions into the system, and collected short questionnaires from students, faculty, and staff to learn more about the number of students and faculty at each school, and their resources” she says.

Although GRT’s current relief efforts are not focused on education, Simon has not forgotten about her passion for the subject. “Every time we drive by a building I recognize to be a school I make sure to stop and take a picture,” she says. These pictures are part of an assessment that provide GIS coordinates for each school that will play a key role when rebuilding can start.

Because 85 percent of schools in Haiti are private, rebuilding the education system—physically and administratively—will pose many questions to the Ministry of Education. The biggest question they face will be whether they can rebuild the private schools. If not, Simon says, this opens a door for complete reform. “This is an opportunity for the public sector to build up a new system for quality, free public education. The problem is this requires funding that isn’t there right now,” she says.

While GRT’s relief projects usually last no more than six months, Simon sees herself working on relief projects for at least a year. “My father’s construction company needs more management support, or I might work to rebuild schools and improve education services,” she says.

by Katie Morin/SU Publications