PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - A place with a ripped-tarp roof, fallen wall and crumbling staircase is actually a rare gem amid the quake-battered ruins of its Haitian neighbourhood.

The Port-au-Prince building is unique because it houses a new, tuition-free school in a country where education tends to be private and prohibitively expensive.

With the help of a Canadian man, the school opened its doors in September to some of the area's poorest kids -- many lost their homes and parents in last year's quake.

L'Ecole de l'Espoir (or School of Hope) is a modest symbol of progress in a country grappling with a 53 per cent literacy rate. Even before the devastating quake of Jan. 12, 2010, which flattened many of the nation's classrooms, only half of Haitian children attended schools.

Many of the kids at L'Ecole de l'Espoir live in dirty and dangerous tent camps and few have enough to eat each day.

"The majority of (the children) lost their mothers or their fathers . . . we're working in a very difficult situation," says the institution's co-founder, Thony Jean-Baptiste.

"Their lives have been very difficult since the earthquake."

The 7.0-magnitude quake damaged or flattened 80 per cent of the schools in Port-au-Prince and 60 per cent in the country's southwest region, according to the Haitian government.

The disaster, which killed more than 200,000 people, spurred the school's founders into action. They were joined by a Yellowknife resident named Greg Brady.

Brady was deeply impacted by the devastation -- especially as he narrowly missed the quake.

An hour after his flight home to Canada lifted off from Port-au-Prince, the temblor hammered the country he had just left behind.

Brady had been on his first-ever trip to Haiti with a Canadian charity called Active Christians With A Mission.

Jean-Baptiste and local teacher Elisee Augustin had pitched the idea to Brady of building a school for the poor only a few days before the earthquake.

Brady, who found out about the quake after he landed in Canada, has spent $5,500 over the last year to pay for things like blackboards, benches and the salaries of four teachers.

The 54-year-old territorial government employee had just finished paying off his truck, which left him with an extra $600 a month in his bank account.

"I thought, for that kind of money, I can operate a school," Brady said.

"I have money for once in my life and I've learned a lot -- I've learned that giving really is receiving."

Education reform is expected to be a big part of the country's reconstruction. The UN estimates that more than 90 per cent of children who were in school before the quake are now back in the classroom.

Universally accessible schooling is crucial to the Caribbean nation's reconstruction, says Michaelle Jean, Canada's former governor general, now a special envoy to Haiti for a UN body.

The Haitian-born Jean says more than 80 per cent of Haiti's schools are private, forcing families to break their budgets to pay for tuition and mandatory school uniforms.

She recalls how Haiti's first constitution -- nearly 200 years ago -- identified education and training as national priorities.

"Haitians, even during the time of the plantations, have always considered education as a treasure," Jean told The Canadian Press in a recent interview.

"All Haitian parents, even the poorest, will invest the biggest part of their resources so that their children can go to school. Unfortunately . . . it's become a business for lots of people who exploit this desire."

UN figures say 50 per cent of Haiti's population is under 18 years old.

"All this youth should be busy," said Jean, adding that vast improvements to vocational and university education are also necessary.

Haiti has also received funding for a plan to overhaul its national education system, with goals of getting even more kids enrolled in school, cutting tuition and improving the quality of education.

At L'Ecole de l'Espoir, kids read their lessons in dark classrooms lit primarily by the sunlight that peeks through the wall's missing bricks.

But what these 82 students lack in classroom luxuries they make up for with enthusiasm.

On a recent school day, following afternoon English lessons, dozens of smiling students swayed with excitement as they leapt off their benches and sang the spiritual songs they'd learned.

Jean-Baptiste credits Brady for helping to make it happen.

"He's a very important person, Greg Brady," he said.

"He helped us buy the benches, the blackboards, all of it -- it's because of him that we realized this project."