More Palm Beach County students learning in Haitian Creole as dual language program expands
On the first day of school at Indian Pines Elementary in Lake Worth, sunshine beamed through the windows of Marie Delva’s bright and tidy classroom. On the white board, a message read “Byenveni Nan Jadendanfan” — Welcome to Kindergarten.
Dressed in matching red shirts and khakis, Delva’s kindergarteners sat on a colorful rug in the middle of the room, enraptured as she spoke in a steady stream of Haitian Creole.
“My name is Madame Delva. What’s your name?” she said in Haitian Creole. “Mwen rele Madame Delva. Kijan ou rele?”
“Susy!” cried one of her young students.
“Susy! C’est très bien!” Delva replied.
There are just a handful of school districts across the country that immerse students in Haitian Creole. Now even more students in Palm Beach County schools are getting that chance, thanks to a new dual language program.
Next door to Delva's class, Nicole Armstrong’s students were doing the same thing — in English. Sitting in a circle on a matching rug decorated with bright shapes and colors, Armstrong’s students took turns introducing themselves.
“Your name is Devon, so what do we say?” Armstrong asked her kindergarteners. “Good morning Devon, right? Let’s say it!”
“Good morning Devon!” they cheered.
Some of these students are native speakers of Haitian Creole and others primarily speak English. Together, they’ll learn in both languages — with the goal of becoming bilingual, biliterate and bicultural, as Spanish dual language students have done for decades. Palm Beach County is home to more than 56,000 Haitian immigrants, ranking it among the nation's largest Haitian-American communities.
For years, districts across the country have lagged in offering Haitian Creole immersion programs, even as similar programs in French, Mandarin and Portuguese have taken off.
Haitian Creole is the third most commonly spoken language in Florida, after English and Spanish. And it’s the mother tongue of the world’s first Black republic. But the language has long been maligned as a bastardized version of French. Even in Haiti, most students learn in French.
Simply finding and developing Haitian Creole language teaching materials was a challenge, district staff told WLRN last year, because academic instruction of the language is relatively rare.
When Indian Pines was offered the opportunity to participate in the district’s dual language program, Principal Jill Robinson says the school jumped at the chance.
“As a campus, we're excited,” Robinson said. “I'm excited to see where it goes.”
The school has a track record of reaching students and their families through their heritage languages. As kids and parents streamed through the dropoff line on the first day of school, staff greeted them in English, Spanish, Haitian Creole and American Sign Language.
“Speaking to the kids in their native language, they're very engaged,” Robinson said. “And research says that if you bring up their native language, they pick up the second language that much faster. So I'm curious to see how that's going to play on our academic data and reading proficiency.”
The county’s Haitian Creole dual language program is small but growing — Indian Pines is just the third school to offer it. The first program launched at Rolling Green Elementary during the 2022-2023 school year.