Ruthnie Constant, a 15 year old, vibrant, yet mentally chattered little girl is one of the many victims of the earthquake tragedy that ravaged Haiti on January 12. The 7.0 magnitude quake not only left over 200,000 people dead, it also left over 1.5. million people without a home. And many of them children who ended up in the NYC school system.
As the New York City school system grappled with the technicalities on how to accommodate these children, Ruthnie stated her only solace was the prospect of getting back in school to be among other school children, to be normal again. So as she picked at her barely eaten meal, she did smile when the conversation switched to school. As ready as she was to be a new student in New York City, the Department Of Education officials were not ready for her.
In speaking to Ruthnie, one thing was clear; she could not bear to go back to Haiti. Not yet anyways. While she was not ready for such a scenario, however, she was ready for something. She was ready to go to school. Though not a New Yorker, she knew she wanted to be in Brooklyn. “That’s where they told me all the Haitians were. I want to be close to them, and I want to go to school with other Haitian kids, so I can feel as if I am closer to home.”
But the process of school enrollment has been a challenge for Haitian students after the earthquake. Hundreds of Haitian kids, who have found themselves grappling with the New York City public school system, have not been able to enroll in school as they had hoped. At least not without a struggle.
Nicole Rosefort, director of HABETAC (Haitian Bilingual and ESL Technical Assistance Center) at Brooklyn College, said that her workload has definitely escalated due to the earthquake. The influx of Haitian students entering the school system has been a struggle for the DOE as many schools do not accept students in the middle of the school year. “Not only do we have to worry about finding a suitable school for the kids, suitable meaning that the school will be able to accommodate the language needs of the student, but, often times, you will find a school and they have no space or they do not accept students mid-term.”
This is definitely understood, as it could be disruptive to the education process for all involved to have children coming in at all various levels and at various times throughout the year. But Rosefort contends that students deserve the right to be educated, at any given point, no matter when they come into the system.
Rosefort added: “HABETAC’s purpose is to address the unmet educational needs and concerns of Haitian students and their families, thus we have been addressing those needs through our various workshops and providing assistance to our parents as it relates to the education system.”
The city set up the Enrollment Center as a way to streamline new enrollment; however, according to community leaders, this has not been the case. Students have had to wait weeks to get placed in schools. Often time the enrollment center may send a child and their parent to a school, only to be told that there is no space at that particular school. Community leaders and teachers have stated that they often have to rely on calling in favors to various principals in order to get a child enrolled.
Darnell Benoit of Flambwayan community services, said “What Haitian students are facing post-earthquake is not different from what they faced pre-earthquake.” According to Benoit, The Department of Education has not been meeting the needs of Haitian immigrants for quite some time, especially those who arrive here at a later age, the 14- to 21-year-olds.
“In the public education system when, as a new immigrant, you enter at an early age, things are OK. Even if you have difficulty learning English, you have time to learn English,” Benoit said. “But it’s a major issue for those entering directly into high school. Our community used to have six thriving bilingual programs; they no longer exist, because the city has fazed them out. The Department of Education insists that there is still a bilingual program at Clara Barton High School. But it does not exist.”
Benoit said that there are many things that can be put in place to ensure that the process is streamlined and made more to service the children it is meant to serve. “I don’t understand why a process cannot be created where every school sends a list of all its enrollees after the first week or two of the school year so that the enrollment center knows how many seats are available at each school.”
When asked why there are not better Bilingual Education programs, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said: “I would love to have more Bilingual programs, to ensure every Korean student, or every Haitian-Creole speaker had translation equipment in schools, or Bilingual programs, however, there is just not enough money.”
But to students like Ruthnie who await the prospect of school to establish a certain level of normalcy back into her interrupted childhood, the road to school may not be as smooth as she imagines. And when she arrives, she may find that there are no structures in place to help her adapt to her new adopted home.