How Will U.S. Schools Approach Educating Recently Arrived Haitian Students?

After 200 years of destructive U.S. invasions and interventions into Haiti’s political and economic life, it has been good to see U.S. federal and municipal governmental bodies joining the global efforts to offer support to Haiti in the wake of the recent earthquake.  One of the many attempts to be of assistance has been the welcoming of Haitian children into U.S. schools.  As of last week, according to the Associated Press, nearly 1000 students who had recently arrived from Haiti had enrolled in Miami-Fort Lauderdale area schools.  Hopefully, this will provide an opportunity for children to live safely, heal from the losses they have experienced, and continue to learn and grow, while new schools are built in Haiti.

I was glad to learn that, “In the week after the quake, 1,000 counselors with the Miami-Dade schools were trained in cultural sensitivity, how to deal with grief-stricken students and how to help teachers identify signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.” And I was heartened to read about the “buddy system” that some of the schools have put in place, whereby newly arrived students are paired up with already enrolled students who speak Haitian Creole and English.

But I have a terrible picture in my head of students, just transported by military planes away from a tremendously traumatic experience, being sent into classes where teachers are responsible for implementing regimented, standardized, teach-to-the-test curricula.  After everything students have just been through, will they be expected to jump into chapter seven of The Outsiders with their new peers?

Students coming out of Haiti right now need opportunities to process their experiences and explore big questions about their lives and the world.  They deserve the chance to think, discuss, read and reflect on information and materials relevant to what they are experiencing.  I’m sure a great teacher could figure out how to make that happen, while teaching students to “identify concerns of the American colonists that led to the writing of the Declaration of Independence, such as taxation and laws of England” (one of the seventh grade Sunshine State Standards).  But how often will that happen?

I also worry that new students will not have the chance to continue to study in Haitian Creole or learn about Haitian culture.  As someone who went to an elementary, middle and high school with Haitian bilingual programs, I watched as students were “mainstreamed” out of Haitian/Creole studies.  I don’t think students should be segregated based on nationality, but Haitian/Haitian American students have the right to learn Creole and to learn about Haitian history and culture.  As do their fellow students, who are no doubt curious about the experiences, language and culture of their new classmates.

I hope that the Miami-Fort Lauderdale schools and all of the other districts that are welcoming Haitian students take these issues into consideration.  Perhaps then we might get to see some amazing examples of students and teachers turning two centuries of US military, political and economic disruptions of Haiti’s sovereignty–as well as the recent horrific events related to the earthquake–into opportunities for healing, learning, and growth.

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