Charter Schools USA is one of the nation’s largest for-profit charter school management companies, with 58 schools in seven states. But the Florida-based organization also has a charitable arm that’s helping a hardscrabble private school in Haiti.
The Giving Tree Foundation has pledged to raise $250,000 to build a new tuition-free school in Francois, a remote mountain village about an hour and a half outside of the capital of Port-au-Prince. In addition, Charter Schools USA founder and chief executive officer Jonathan Hage has offered to match the funds.
The new school is slated to open in the fall.
A half-a-million dollars will go a long way in a village where few residents have access to running water and electricity, said Richard Page, vice president of development for CSUSA. Page traveled to Haiti in December with his wife and their two daughters to see the school and help deliver 700 Christmas presents to the local children. For many, it was the first Christmas gift they had ever received.
For now, the Genecoit School of Excellence is in a one-room, dilapidated building. It employs about a dozen teachers and serves 119 students in K-6. There are no laptops or Smart Boards, or even enough books.
“The conditions are so far from what we as Americans could ever imagine,’’ said Page, whose recent trip was documented on CSUSA’s Facebook page. “Yet, the children are bubbly, excited and happy. They put on a fashion show for us. They were on fire for life.’’
And grateful to have a school. Their gratitude made an impression on Charter Schools USA, where employees first learned about Francois from co-worker Gene Vertus, an IT manager for the organization whose father started the school in 1994.
Vertus’ family left the village for Miami when he was 8. He grew up with an appreciation for how education transforms lives. He graduated from North Miami Beach Senior High, and went on to receive an associate’s degree from Miami-Dade Community College and a bachelor’s degree from Florida International University.
More recently, the 38-year-old husband and father of two boys started his own nonprofit, Passion Rescue Mission, to give back to his homeland. The No. 1 goal: Re-opening the school his father founded.
“I always thought the greatest gift I could give to anyone was a free education,’’ Vertus said, adding his favorite saying: “To the world, I may be one. But to the one, I may be the world.’’
In Haiti, where there is no public education system, only very affluent families can afford to send their children to school, he said. That injustice inspired Vertus’ father, Genecoit Vertus, to return to Francois and setup a school.
After his death in 2001, the school faltered and closed. Gene Vertus revived it in 2009.
About the same time, he was attracting a small following at Charter Schools USA. Page, Hage and others were so moved by their co-worker’s dedication to his father’s legacy that they started volunteering to help deliver food and clothing.
Now, every three months or so, 10 to 15 CSUSA teachers, principals and other employees make a pilgrimage to Francois, where they stay for about a week. They assist village teachers and make the personal connections that have helped transform Vertus’ goal into a company-wide mission.
Company employees also continue to raise money. The new school will have enough room to accommodate 350 students, including the school’s first group of seventh graders. It plans to add a grade level each year until it’s K-12.