DePaul professor finds calling in Haiti

Forty-five miles outside of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in the town of Mirebalais, children from all over the region show up each day to a school that is a little different from the average Haitian school. It is called l’’ÛÎ_cole de Choix, and it was founded by a professor in DePaul’s business school.

The story of l’’ÛÎ_cole de Choix, or “The School of Choice,” begins in 2010, when a major earthquake further devastated the already severely impoverished nation of Haiti. As special assistant to the president on Haiti initiatives at DePaul, Professor Laura Hartman represented the university in helping to found Zaf’ÛÎån, a Vincentian microfinance organization dedicated to helping Haiti rebuild.

Before the earthquake, Hartman had been working with her brother Mark Pincus, CEO of the online gaming company Zynga. Her role at Zynga was to forge partnerships with nonprofits. Zynga produces well-known online games like Farmville and Words With Friends, and offers players an opportunity to contribute to social causes during gameplay.

While in Haiti with Zaf’ÛÎån, Hartman took note of the influx of refugees in the area around Mirebalais. Identifying a need for quality education in the area, Hartman said she and her team gradually converted a group of earthquake shelters into a more permanent school building.

“We realized there were all these children who had no opportunities to go to school,” said Hartman. “They had never been to school. It’s only $25 a year, but they were in such extreme poverty they couldn’t afford it.”

Zynga helped provide initial start-up costs for the school through small donations from their large pool of game players.

“My experience at Zynga (shows that) doing something valuable for others through these non-profit partnerships really does make money.” said Hartman.

Stressing the need for well-educated teachers hired at a living wage, Hartman described l’’ÛÎ_cole de Choix as offering higher-quality education than other local schools, but at a cost.

“Our payroll every month is very, very difficult” said Hartman.

The K-12 school teaches in three languages – French, Creole and English – and provides lunch each day for its students. The student body is comprised intentionally of “those living in the most extreme conditions of poverty in Haiti.

Hartman visits the school regularly and works on fundraising at home in Chicago, as the school is no longer being funded by Zynga.

“Professor Hartman visits l’’ÛÎ_cole de Choix every few months,” said principal Mary Clisbee. “The children at (the school) know her as Madame Laura. As part of our recent fundraising event held in Chicago, she worked with the students to make knotted bracelets that were to be given to each person who attended the gala event, representing a gift from the students to each supporter of Choix.”

Hartman, a native of Chicago, attended the city’s Francis W. Parker school and earned a bachelor’s degree in social psychology at Tufts University.

“Francis Parker was actually really influential in my upbringing,” said Hartman. “It’s a very progressive school which focuses a great deal on leadership and decision-making. Tufts was actually pretty similar.”

Hartman first became involved with DePaul when she was asked to advise a DePaul mock trial team while attending law school at the University of Chicago. After graduation, she worked at a law firm before being offered a teaching position at DePaul in 1990.

Colleague and friend Dr. Kathy Dhanda speaks highly of Hartman’s passion for her work in Haiti.

“She’s not a quiet person,” said Dhanda. “She’s always a champion for those who don’t have a voice.”

Hartman argued that good education begins with effective teachers and that in order to develop good leaders, quality education must come first.

“Everyone thinks, ‘Oh my gosh Haiti is so corrupt, it has all these problems.’ Well, yeah, what if you were educated by someone who had no education themselves?” said Hartman. “Give us time, and we will give you leaders who know what they’re doing.”