In a Mattapan kindergarten classroom one recent morning, a girl pointed one by one at numbers on the brightly decorated wall, prompting her classmates to count: “en, de, twa, kat.” Next, they counted in English.
The children, some of them recent immigrants from Haiti, were among 75 students in Mattahunt Elementary School’s Toussaint L’Ouverture Academy, where the teachers — all Haitian American — lead lessons in both Haitian Creole and English. Many of the children are learning English while others are native English speakers.
The academy covers the same curriculum as mainstream classes, but these teachers and students spend the day interacting, and often repeating sentences, in both languages so students learn both fluently. The program is emblematic of the bilingual education that Boston Public Schools recently announced plans to significantly expand under a reform agreement with the state to improve its long-struggling instruction for English language learners.
“We have a linguistically diverse Boston community, and it’s time that we create more opportunities as a community for our students to become proficient in two or more languages so they can thrive and compete,” Superintendent Mary Skipper told the School Committee last month.
When the Haitian Creole program opened in 2017 for 4-year-olds, it was the country’s first such program for prekindergartners. Last year, the academy’s founding class took the third-grade state-mandated MCAS test and outperformed their peers in the school, said Priscilla Joseph, a kindergarten teacher and program cofounder. The only two students who scored “exceeding expectations” at the Mattahunt were in the Creole program. The results ran counter to many parents’ fears that their children would be confused by the bilingual curriculum and not learn English well, Joseph said. She believes the program’s success comes in part from immigrant students feeling welcomed.
“Some kids can take many, many years before they’re comfortable saying one word in English,” Joseph said. “But our kids learn fast. They’re like, ‘Oh, they get me — boom, boom, I got it.’ ”
Though bilingual education is now considered by many researchers to be a best practice for teaching English to students who speak another language at home, it is still gaining traction within BPS and can be a tough sell to many immigrant parents who believe their children should focus only on English. Many studies have found that immigrant students learn English faster when enrolled in high quality, long-term bilingual programs compared to English-only classes, as students build upon the foundation of language they understand.
To help Haitian families understand the benefits of teaching their children Creole, Haitian educators are holding workshops this year with families, funded by a $15,000 grant from BPS and the Boston Teachers Union. The teachers understand the trauma their students’ families have experienced, and they say it’s important to build connections to help foster learning.
Many newly arrived Haitian students came from Brazil and Chile, having walked across much of South and Central America and witnessed people die along the way, teachers said. Boston has long had a large Haitian community, but President Biden’s decision to extend protected immigration status for Haitians last year helped trigger a new surge of Haitians to Boston. Refugees have left Haiti since a 2010 earthquake killed 220,000 people; the country has since experienced another deadly earthquake, a hurricane, a presidential assassination, and increased gang violence.
On Zoom recently, educators told 25 Haitian parents about the importance of reading with their children and teaching them Creole through cooking, watching TV, listening to music, and telling stories. Being bilingual is linked to cognitive, social, and academic benefits, they said.
Parents said they learned a lot.
“I’m not going to let them just do English, English, English,” said Anne Laguerre, a caregiver for two Haitian students who moved to Boston last year. “I’m going to play parallel with them in English and French and Creole.”
In an August plan submitted to the state as part of mandated systemic improvement to avoid the state taking control of BPS, the district said it would add 12 new bilingual programs in the 2023-2024 school year, with a total of 25 new ones launched by June 2025. (BPS currently offers nine dual-language programs: Haitian Creole at one school, American Sign Language at one school, Vietnamese at two schools, and Spanish at five schools.)
The school district’s efforts to promote bilingualism are part of a statewide shift in recent years away from “English-only” instruction for immigrant children. In 2002, Massachusetts voters approved a ballot initiative known as Question 2, which mandated English immersion for immigrant students. State lawmakers in 2017 overturned it by passing the “Language Opportunity for Our Kids,” or “LOOK Act,” which allowed teachers greater flexibility and recognized value in bilingual education.
But BPS still has too many immigrant students remaining in English-immersion classes where they hear only English all day, said John Mudd, a member of the School Committee’s English Language Learners task force.
Dual-language programs are great in theory, but they reach too few students because they require highly trained staff, Mudd said. (The Haitian Creole program, for example, serves 75 students, a small fraction of the 1,330 students in BPS whose first language is Haitian Creole.) Mudd said BPS needs to move urgently to better serve its 14,000 English-language learners by incorporating more of their native languages into their classes.
About 94 percent of English learners in BPS did not meet expectations for the English Language Arts MCAS test last spring, state data show.
“BPS is not implementing the LOOK Act, much less doing justice to these students,” Mudd said. “You only need to look at the achievement data to see how profoundly we are failing to provide an opportunity to learn to these students.”
In response, Skipper said the district “must ensure students have access to native language instruction.”
“It’s critical that all multilingual learners feel a sense of belonging, safety, and joy in learning,” she said.
Teachers say a sense of belonging — which they foster by celebrating Haitian food, holidays, and culture — doesn’t just make students feel good, but translates to deeper learning. At the Mattahunt school, 26 percent of English-language learners met or exceeded expectations in the third-grade English Language Arts MCAS test, double the portion of English learners across the district who met or exceeded expectations on that test.
“I felt confident in taking the MCAS,” said Sebastien Scutt, 9, a Haitian immigrant who was one of two students who scored “exceeding expectations” in the school. The program is “very awesome,” he added. “I get to improve my language.”
The other high scorer, Lorensnel Blaise, 9, spoke no English when he moved from Haiti at 5. “It’s good to learn more than one language,” he said.
Sherley Lane, a third-grade teacher, teared up as she recalled feeling lost when she moved to Boston from Haiti at age 7.
“I had to forget my culture,” Lane said. “I tell my students how fortunate they are to be in the program and keep their language.”
The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Naomi Martin can be reached at email@example.com.