By STEVENSON JACOBS, Associated Press Writer

CROIX DES BOUQUETS, Haiti – A stack of warped Creole grammar books rots in the sun. Graded tests, splintered school desks and the twisted metal husk of a water fountain litter the floor.

One classroom has completely disappeared, its wooden frame peeled off board-by-board by looters who left only a chipped concrete foundation.

The National Athletics School used to be one of Haiti’s best public academies until it was destroyed by gangs loyal to former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide hours after he fled the country Feb. 29.

“Now there’s nothing left,” said Josue Charles, 21, one of several students helping rebuild the school in this town of market vendors 25 miles west of the capital, Port-au-Prince. “What they couldn’t steal, they destroyed.”

As life slowly returns to what passes for normal in strife-torn Haiti, the daily routine for many students remains in tatters. More than half the country’s schools were closed after the uprising that left more than 300 dead and forced Aristide into exile.

On Monday, uniformed boys with rucksacks and girls wearing pink and red hair ribbons filled the streets as most schools reopened for the first time since the crisis started brewing in December.

The disruption crippled an already moribund education system in a country where more than half the 8 million people are illiterate and only 60 percent have access to schools.

All told, at least 50 schools throughout Haiti were destroyed by pro-Aristide gangs, according to the U.N. Children’s Fund. An unknown number of others were gutted by looters who took everything not nailed down — textbooks, wall maps, desks, even blackboards.

In the capital, most schools closed for weeks, and attendance plummeted 80 percent at others where students were too afraid to return, according to UNICEF (newsweb sites).

“They have all been witness to violence and murder and don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” said UNICEF spokeswoman Francoise Gruloos-Ackermans. “But we’re confident things will improve.”

Another factor keeping down attendance is the schools’ shortage of food, causing a lack of incentive for many children in this impoverished nation who receive their only daily meal in the classroom, she said.

As tension starts to ease, U.S. Marines are doing patrols near schools and officials are trying to fill classrooms, using radio messages.

Among those who lent their voice to the campaign was Haitian-American hip-hop singer Wyclef Jean, who recorded a song in Creole calling for people to “put down the guns and pick up pencils and textbooks.”

“There’s no need to be afraid, the schools will be secured,” newly appointed Education Minister Pierre Buteau said in a weekend radio address.

Haiti’s constitution calls for free access to education for all, but the reality is far from that. A lack of government funding has left 85 percent of schools in private hands, mostly religious groups.

The National Athletics School, founded in 1995, was supposed to be that rare success story, an all-ages academy where students could receive a basic education and train for sports teams at virtually no cost.

“The school was open to everyone. It has nothing to do with politics,” said Cesar James, a 23-year-old student.

In the school’s courtyard, the words “Respect,” “Discipline” and “Love of Country” are neatly painted on a wall, not far from graffiti calling for Aristide to be allowed to serve out the five-year term to which he was elected in 2000.

Inside one ransacked classroom, wires dangle from the ceiling where light fixtures were ripped down, and piles of student files with photos and academic records lay scattered about.

“I never thought people could do something like this. They even burned birth certificates,” said 19-year-old student Ronaldson Joseph.

Worried about missing an entire academic year, he is helping others rebuild the school using some rusty saws, scavenged lumber and a few bags of cement.

Nearby, Pierre Armencier, 52, lined up a tape measure against a board as he supervises the students’ work. Asked why gangs would target a school, the bespectacled father of a 14-year-old student could only shake his head.

“The people who did this have no sense. It only hurts the community and the Haitian people,” he said. “We’ll recover from this, but time lost by the students is something we can never get back.”