Published Sunday, February 11, 2007
Haitian Parents Deliberate Teaching Creole or French
By JENNIFER KAY
The Associated Press
MIAMI - The kindergartners hunched over their tiny desks, drawing and labeling their favorite characters from the fable "The Little Red Hen." Genevieve Henriquez, their teacher at Morningside Elementary School, caught a few students checking an English alphabet chart to spell "pig."
"Kochon! K-o-ch-on," she said, redirecting their gaze to a Haitian Creole alphabet chart on the opposite wall to phonetically spell the word for pig. Her class just read "Ti Poul Wouj La," a translation of the fable, part of the 75 minutes they spend every day learning in Creole.
Morningside, where 80 percent of the 450 pupils are of Haitian descent, is at the center of a debate among Haitian-Americans about whether it would be best for their children to learn Creole, which is used almost solely in the impoverished Caribbean nation, or the more universal French or Spanish as a second language with English.
The school started immersion classes in Spanish and French for its kindergarten and first grade students when classes resumed last August. Community members with children not yet enrolled at the school pushed to add Creole, and an ensuing fight exposed lingering perceptions about poor, uneducated Haitians, Principal Kathleen John-Loussaint said.
In Haiti, everyone speaks Creole - a blend of French and the West African languages spoken by slaves in Haiti's colonial past. But French - spoken by only about 10 percent of the population - has long been considered in Haiti to be the mark of education.
"It was a little bit of a controversy. Creole is more of a language of - I don't want to say peasant, but of the working class in Haiti," John-Loussaint said.
Morningside sits in Miami's Little Haiti, a neighborhood marked by crime and poverty. Nearly all its children participate in the free- and reduced-price lunch program.
"French may be wanted, but they (Morningside students) are not speaking French at home. They're not speaking English at home," John-Loussaint said.
Critics who protested the inclusion of Creole argued French is more useful beyond the neighborhood and that speaking French is equally important in preserving their culture.
"People associate class with it still. When you think of French, you think of education, sophistication, culture," said Jacquelyne Hoy, principal of the private Lycee Franco-Americain International School in Broward County, where about three-quarters of the students are of Haitian descent. The children there are taught in English and French, no Creole.
Sandra Nelson-Pollas, a Haitian woman who sends her two sons to Hoy's school, said she wanted to reinforce the French her family speaks at home; she speaks Creole with her siblings, but her children don't speak the language.
Creole supporters say learning the language will help their children prepare for a bilingual job market. About 80 percent of the nearly 700,000 Haitians living in the U.S. say they do not speak English at home, and about half of those say they speak English less than "very well," according to U.S. Census data.