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This Boston preschool is teaching children in Creole and English — and instilling Haitian pride

The Toussaint L’Ouverture Academy is teaching Creole fluency while also helping families by easing translation burdens for children of immigrant parents.
The Toussaint L'Ouverture Academy at Mattahunt Elementary School
The Toussaint L'Ouverture Academy at Mattahunt Elementary School is the nation's first two-way immersion Haitian Creole dual-language program.Boston Public Schools

In the heart of Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood, a quiet revolution is taking place at the Mattahunt Elementary School, whose Toussaint L’Ouverture Dual Language Academy is not just breaking down language barriers but  also fostering pride, empowerment and a deep connection to Haitian culture among its students.

It’s the first two-way immersion Haitian Creole dual-language preschool program in the country, and it’s fitting that it operates in Boston, the city with the third-largest Haitian population in America. Priscilla Joseph, a founding teacher of the academy, said it was created in 2017 to meet the needs of the surrounding Creole-speaking neighborhood. 

“Boston Public Schools and many community partners felt that the Mattahunt would be the best location, especially in Mattapan, which has a high Haitian population,” said Joseph, who leads the K-5 program at the school.

Mattahunt Elementary School accommodates 512 students, while the Toussaint L’Ouvertue Dual Language Academy — named for the leader of the Haitian Revolution — serves 132 students. The school boasts a 97% enrollment of students of color, predominantly Black. 

Joseph, who is Haitian American, said she draws from her own experiences as she passionately advocates for the importance of preserving Haitian Creole. “I also grew up in a place where it wasn’t OK to say that you were Haitian, and there was a lot of discrimination against Haitian people,” she said. “So I kind of took my own experiences and entered that into the classroom, knowing how it feels to be a little bit different, or a little bit outcasted, because of your culture.”

One common experience for many children of immigrants is having to translate and advocate for their families and parents from an early age. The academy not only helps children in that regard, but also tries to knock down some language barriers to steer parents and relatives away from feeling isolated. 

The Toussaint L'Ouverture Academy at Mattahunt Elementary School
The Toussaint L'Ouverture Academy at Mattahunt Elementary School.Boston Public Schools

“We do have staff who are also Creole speakers, like our social worker, who speaks Haitian Creole,” Joseph said. “Some of our other admins speak Haitian Creole, and our family liaison speaks Haitian Creole. So when they are looking for different things, such as help with filling out applications, we’ve had some of our social workers and our family liaison go to the Welcome Center and help them fill out applications,” Joseph said. Now, parents who speak only Creole can actively engage in their children’s education thanks to genuine diversity. 

A typical school day at the Mattahunt Elementary Dual Language program is structured to provide students with a comprehensive and balanced education in both Haitian Creole and English. Students engage in a variety of activities that promote bilingualism and biliteracy, as well as sociocultural competency. The curriculum is designed to align with students’ interests, contexts and cultures, creating a meaningful learning experience that resonates with them.

One of the key features of the program is the application of English and Haitian Creole to all subjects, including Language Arts, Math, Science and Social Studies. For example, students learn the Haitian alphabet, explore Haitian folklore and study stories that relate to their home culture. This not only enhances their language skills but also helps them make meaningful connections to their heritage and identity. 

Their journey to build the program began beyond the school walls, all the way in Haiti, where Joseph, Henderson and a group of educators from Mattahunt sought inspiration and guidance from educators and communities alike. 

While “it was great to be a tourist,” Joseph said, the main objective was to talk to teachers and students at several different types of schools. “One of the biggest things the teachers talked about was that they could not believe that there were little kids in Boston learning Haitian Creole,” she said.  

Witnessing the resilience and pride of the Haitian people firsthand, they said they returned with a renewed sense of purpose and determination to instill the same pride in their students.

That pride filters down even into celebrating Haitian Heritage Month with author readings, cultural performances and flag-raising ceremonies. Joseph described the annual tradition of raising the Haitian flag atop the school as a powerful symbol of unity and pride.

Addressing concerns about negative portrayals of Haiti in the media during the current crisis, Joseph and Walter Henderson, the principal of Mattahunt Elementary School, emphasized the importance of instilling resilience and positivity in their students. “We show them videos of Haiti, we show them the music, and we remind them of Haiti’s rich history and legacy of resilience,” Joseph explained.

Henderson said he and the other teachers in the academy envision their work as educating Haiti’s future leaders. Haiti’s “next ambassador, president, engineers, lawyers and doctors,” could come from his classrooms, Henderson said. “We’re just prepping them for when they take over. And we try to make sure that they understand that Haiti is a powerful nation.”

As the program continues to flourish, it serves as a beacon of hope and empowerment for Haitian American students and their families, challenging stereotypes and fostering a sense of belonging and pride.

This program is not just transforming education at one elementary school in a Boston neighborhood, Henderson said. It’s changing lives and building a brighter future for generations to come. Test scores show that students are performing well, but perhaps just as importantly, that what the children are learning is “bringing a sense of comfort to the families.”

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