PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A few years ago, a group of high school students attending the modest, privately run College Catts Pressoir came up with an innovative thought for their physics final: They would get a broken traffic light down the street to work again.

After studying how traffic lights work, they installed an inverter operated by 10 batteries in their classroom and ran an electrical cable to the nearby four-way intersection. Weeks later, at the corner of John Brown and Martin Luther King, the lights came alive.

“Difficulties are the ingredients of development,” said school headmaster and chemistry teacher Guy Etienne, recalling the day the lights came on. “What we are developing in students’ minds is that when you are confronted with a challenge, go find a solution; don’t just cross your arms and say you can’t because it’s difficult.”

That empowering philosophy has made Catts Pressoir one of Haiti’s most prestigious private schools. It also has given Etienne the biggest recognition yet of his 34-year teaching career: He is among 10 finalists for a $1 million award that is considered the “Nobel Prize for teaching.”

“For 30 years, a lot of parents haven’t agreed with me. But today, the world does,” said Etienne, who beat out more than 5,000 nominees from 127 countries for a chance to be recognized as the world’s most exceptional teacher. “This encourages me to keep doing the work that I am doing.”

Awarded by the Varkey Foundation, the prize is the brainchild of Indian-entrepreneur Sunny Varkey. Varkey said the competition isn’t about the money, but rather drawing attention to the enormous influence and achievements of teachers. He will name the winner Sunday at his Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai. Etienne and his wife, Marilyn, also a teacher at the school, will be there.

“This is a great honor; not just for me but for the country,” said Etienne, 61. “What makes me proud is that every Haitian is identifying him or herself with this honor.”

Education Minister Nesmy Manigat, who named Etienne to his curriculum reform commission, isn’t surprised by his global spotlight.

“Guy is a leader and role model,” said Manigat, who has launch an aggressive push to fix Haiti’s broken education system — in which more than half of graduating students last year failed exit exams. “My wish is that our teachers use his nomination as a positive drive to help bring excellence to our schools.”

For Etienne, the Global Teacher Prize shortlist is the latest in a string of honors. In 2011, mobile giant Digicel named him Entrepreneur of the Year in Education. Three years later, he was named a senior fellow of Ashoka, an organization that pays tribute to the world’s social entrepreneurs.

Next month, Etienne will travel to Denmark to collect another prize. The LEGO Foundation recently named Catts Pressoir among 10 champions in its Re-imagine Learning Challenge for the school’s “skills building and ‘changemaking’ in a tough environment.”

Among Haiti’s middle class, Catts Pressoir has long been known for students’ ingenious science and technology projects, and its rigorous teacher training.

Last year, for example, students developed a street surveillance camera and offered it to Haiti’s National Police and to the government. No one responded, Etienne said. But when the government announced months later that it was adopting such a system, students rejoiced.

“They said, ‘Yes! Our idea was adopted,’ ” Etienne said. “What we teach them is that when you develop a project, it’s not for you. It’s for the community.”

When he isn’t teaching, Etienne is in his second-floor administrative office overlooking the concrete basketball court that doubles as a running track. His walls are decorated with plaques and students’ photos. Not far from the front door, Jeanine Vaval, 92, sits in a rocking chair, keeping a watchful eye over the students and her star pupil.

“He was my student you know,” she said proudly of Etienne, a graduate of the school

Vaval and her husband Ernest founded the school in 1955 and named it in honor of Catts Pressoir. Pressoir, a family friend, was a doctor and science professor who was forced into exile with his school teacher wife, Soeurette.

Etienne took over the school in 1981 at the request of a retiring Ernest Vaval.

“Teaching is my life,” said Etienne, who’s also married to the Vavals’ daughter. “I am an engineer, and I could have chosen to go work as a civil engineer and make a whole lot more money than I do as a director of a school. I chose teaching, I chose to be the director of the school because when I am teaching, I feel good.”

It has always been his dream, Etienne said, to put Haiti on the global map with his innovative teaching.

“I have an expiration date and soon, I will be gone. But Haiti is immortal,” he said. “One shouldn’t see it as Guy Etienne who received this honor but Haiti that has received it. What I hope and what I am working for is for us to create multiple Guy Etiennes.”

Accomplishing this hasn’t always been easy.

After taking over the school, Etienne threw out Haiti’s French education model of memorization and passive student participation. The curriculum, he decided, would be science- and technology-driven, and everything students learn should be applicable in their communities to help Haiti advance. Teachers also would be regularly trained.

“A lot of parents didn’t agree with us,” he said. “During that era, the prestigious schools in the country where those that were teaching children the history of Haiti, grammar rules. Their philosophy was that students studied, recited and succeeded. We said, ‘No.'”

Even the decision by 150 parents to withdraw their children wasn’t enough to dissuade him.

“I refused to commit that kind of crime where you teach kids a bunch of things that they can’t do anything with,” he said. “I preferred to have borrowed money from the bank in order to hold on to our innovative way of teaching. The only way a country advances is to have an education system that responds to its needs.”

The challenges didn’t end there. When the school wanted to install a chemistry lab during the tumultuous Duvalier dictatorship era, Etienne had to negotiate with the regime’s leaders.

“Every time there was a bomb scare in the country, they came here,” he said. “We had to fight to have them understand that our role at Catts Pressoir wasn’t to create bombs but to teach students chemistry in a practical manner.”

Today, parents are embracing the school’s modern way of thinking as well as its small class sizes of 20 to 39 students. Enrollment is capped at 700.

“This school is a model that should be replicated across the country,” leading Haitian playwright and author Gary Victor said as he dropped off his three children one morning. “It is of the same quality of any good American or French school.”

But in a country where the majority of schools lack qualified teachers and quality education, Catts Pressoir is an exception, Victor said.

“It allows students to express themselves and develop their talent,” he said.

At $1,200 a year, the school’s tuition can be considered a bargain compared to some private schools where Haitian parents pay as much as $1,200 a month. Still, Victor and others acknowledge that Catts remains out of reach for most students in Haiti where the majority live on less than $2 a day, according to the World Bank.

“It’s extremely difficult for a parent to pay for a school like this,” said Victor, noting that even he struggles to make tuition payments. “The children who come here are from the middle class. You won’t see the children of the economic elite here. It’s the middle class who are here, parents who are struggling to make an effort.”

Etienne said it’s not unusual for the school to end the year with less than $150 in the bank.

Inside his chemistry class, 38 students crowd around rectangular desks, sharing books inside a room with exposed cinder blocks. The shelves are filled with encyclopedias and other worn books with pages that are falling apart. Outside, a third floor is missing, damaged during the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake.

If he wins the prize, Etienne would like to use the money to expand the school’s enrollment via distance learning. He would also like to arm every student with their own personal tablet.

“It’s an economic gymnastic to keep our doors open,” he said. “We’re always borrowing money. But it’s not the amount of money that interests us. We have a philosophy of permanent reinvestment. The money comes in and it must go out so that we can improve the education we are giving the students.”