Sisters help students in Little Haiti
BY PETER BAILEY
In the middle of summer vacation, a group of students gathers weekly for Edline Hall's tutoring session at Notre Dame d'Haiti Catholic Church, meeting in a tiny classroom dominated by a painting of Martin Luther King wrapped in the American flag, with the words ''I Have A Dream'' emblazoned across his chest.
But that dream seems elusive to these Little Haiti students, the seeds of immigrants yearning to bloom.
Fortunately for them, Hall and her four sisters are dream catchers.
Since August of last year, the five -- Hall, Marlene Miles, Marie Lucie Joseph, Gertrude Joseph-Daquin and Dr. Mary Jeanne d'Arc Mathurin -- have been providing free tutoring in reading and math. The class meets every Wednesday from 6 to 8 p.m. and the goal is to improve the students' scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test by offering individualized instruction.
Students of all ages from neighborhood schools such as Edison and Central senior highs, Edison Middle and Morningside Elementary, pack the tiny room where they're given math and reading exams -- along with an occasional cupcake.
The sessions are promoted by word of mouth and announcements during Sunday mass at Notre Dame d'Haiti.
Hall and her sisters work as volunteers and pay for all the supplies.
The sisters, all from Port-au-Prince, have made good of King's dream of achievement and equality for all.
Hall teaches at Miami Shores Elementary, Joseph-Daquin at Edison Senior High, Joseph at Phyllis Miller Elementary. Miles works as a librarian at Air Base Elementary and Mathurin conducts child-psychiatry research for the American Academy of Pediatricians.
Hall said she called upon her sisters to help her address the underachievement of children she saw ``falling through the cracks due to poverty and lack of resources.''
''We decided we needed to do something for our community,'' Hall said. ``The children in this community are way behind where they need to be.''
Last Wednesday night emphasized Hall's point.
The six students who came to the tutoring session that night were given a math assessment test so Hall can create assignments individually tailored to each student's strengths and weaknesses.
She quizzed one of the students, an 11th grader at Miami Central, who was stuck on a basic word problem requiring 4th-grade math skills.
''It's very sad to see our children so far behind, but we're going to assist them in any way we can to further their progress,'' Hall said.
Hall saw the pattern of underachievement working as a school nurse for more than five years at different schools around the county. So she decided to become a teacher herself.
''I've always had a maternal nature since I worked in the health field, so I felt I could use the same training as a teacher,'' she said.
Hall graduated from the University of Miami in 1997 with a master's degree in special education. Now she uses her health professional and academic training to pull Little Haiti's kids out of the academic abyss.
But the educational problems that many students in Little Haiti face are complex. Their story is often one of cultural and language barriers mired in poverty and racism, all of which make assimilation into the school system difficult.
Hall knows that all too well.
When she arrived in Brooklyn in the 1960s at the age of 12, the airwaves were alive with the tunes of James Brown and the rhetoric of the civil rights movement.
''I thought black was beautiful, but that was not the case in America,'' she said, referring to the racial climate of the time. ``I only spoke Creole, so life was difficult.''
Her story sounded similar to that of an energetic 9-year-old jumping up and down to answer a question Wednesday night.
Stanley Dougé, a fifth-grader at Eneida M. Hartner Elementary, hasn't missed one session since the sisters began tutoring. He has learned English since arriving from Haiti two years ago, but admits understanding teachers in school can be hard.
''I didn't understand my teachers a lot of the times,'' said Stanley, who only speaks Creole at home. ``The [tutors] help me with my times tables.''
Stanley's mother takes English lessons where she works in North Miami, while his father is back in Haiti saving money to send Stanley's other siblings to the U.S.
Mathurin, the oldest of the sisters and a former teacher at Thomas Jefferson Middle School, said that stereotyping kids in the community as failures is psychologically devastating and ultimately leads to failing grades.
''People have to reinforce positive ideals in these kids and that starts at home,'' said Mathurin. ``We have to get the parents involved.''
The sisters plan on asking educators at Barry University and other higher-education institutions to assist with the sessions which will continue as long as there is a need for academic improvement in Little Haiti.
''We're going to get more teachers and students involved,'' said Hall. ``This is just the beginning.''