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Liaison tries to keep Haitians, schools connected

Liaison tries to keep Haitians, schools connected

By Shannon Colavecchio, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 26, 2001

Bito David never strays far from his native Haiti, even a decade after leaving the island of political unrest.

In his cramped cubicle in Palm Beach County School District headquarters, a Haitian flag hangs alongside pictures of the impoverished nation's historical leaders, and David's own abstract pencil drawings depict everyday life in Haiti.

The walls surrounding his desk are decorated with dozens of masks and sculptures he's brought back from frequent visits to his parents and sister in Port-au-Prince.

"I like to keep this space very cultural," David explains.

But if all those mementoes were not enough to remind David of his origins, the job he's held since mid-April is ensuring he remains close to Haiti's people and traditions.

As the district's first public information specialist for the Haitian community, David, 36, serves as the Creole-speaking link between Haitian families and their children's teachers and administrators.

Some Haitian community leaders say David's $43,000-a-year position is long overdue, given the increasing number of Haitian immigrants getting an education in Palm Beach County schools. Officials estimate there are 10,000 Haitian students in grades K-12, an increase of about 200 percent over the past decade. But they say accurate counts are difficult because many Haitian students classify themselves in district paperwork and even census forms as simply black or African-American.

The number of Haitian students here makes David's task monumental, and not just because he is the first to do it.

"In Haiti, teachers are treated like parents, who have total control over education and discipline," explained the married father of two. "That's partly why parent participation is so low in Haiti. Here, you are required to get involved in education. There, you just drop your child off and forget about it. So I am trying to provide information to Haitian parents who don't think they should be interfering."

That means encouraging parents to call a school and ask questions, at the same time letting them know it's not an insult to teachers. He also has to explain to them the importance of helping their children with homework and standardized test drills.

David is finding the miscommunication between schools and Haitian parents ranges from minor to potentially explosive.

For example, some families simply don't understand the A's and B's on their child's report card. They are used to Haiti's French-based number system, where 5 on a scale of 1 to 10 is a passing score.

Other parents insist they should be able to discipline their child just as they do in Haiti -- even if it is sometimes physical enough to prompt a Palm Beach County teacher's report of child abuse to authorities.

"They say, 'Why can't I discipline my own child?' " David said. "But I have to explain that what Americans call child abuse is not what Haitians call child abuse."

Robert Arrieux, executive director of the Haitian Center for Family Services in West Palm Beach, said schools in Haiti are also much smaller, so Haitian parents are often reluctant to visit the county's large schools -- where few people, if any, speak their language.

"You throw someone with little experience into this school system, especially if they don't have a formal education themselves, and it's a very intimidating experience," he said.

David is trying to make it less so, by going to Haitian churches and community groups on weekends and evenings and introducing himself to local Creole-speaking journalists and leaders. He recently held a presentation at Delray Beach's Bethel Baptist Church for more than 200 to explain the district's algebra initiative, requiring all ninth-graders to take -- and pass -- algebra.

He is also keeping close tabs on the district's recent decision to separately monitor Haitian students' standardized test scores, a change he says will help better serve those students' academic needs. Colleagues say he understands these students' needs, having worked as a translator and interpreter in the multicultural affairs department since 1997.

David moved to South Florida in 1991, having earned a bachelor's degree in agronomy from the State University of Haiti.

Today, David holds two more degrees -- a bachelor's in business administration and a master's in education -- and a certification in computer network administration, all from Florida Atlantic University.

"In all my jobs here, I've been acting between the school district and the parents and Haitian community," he said. "But this is a much bigger responsibility. At the end of my first year, I would like the Haitian community to know there is someone for them in the district, to get them whatever information or help they need."


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