Florida Schools Take In Students From Haiti

With most schools closed in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, many Haitians are sending their children to friends and family in South Florida. School districts there already are seeing a steady influx of Haitian students and many more are expected. So far, school districts say they can accommodate the new students but some say they will need financial help to cope.

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Now, since the earthquake, more than 2,000 Haitian students have arrived at schools in Florida, many in the Miami area. That's put a financial burden on Florida schools that is only expected to grow. NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN: At Felix Varela High School in Miami it's not uncommon now to hear Haitian Creole in the hallways. West Kendall, the area in Miami the school serves, is mostly Hispanic. But since the earthquake, it's become a destination for Haitian students looking to resume their studies in the United States. Most of the 50 Haitians who've arrived in the past month attended private schools in Port-au-Prince.

Talia Pilorges(ph) is a 17-year-old senior whose school in Haiti now serves as a military base and hospital. She spent summers in Miami and now is living here with her aunt. On her first day at the new school, she says she was nervous.

TALIA PILORGES: It was lunchtime. It was huge. I didn't know where to go, left or right. I just looked right in front of me and there was the Haitian table, we called it...

ALLEN: Yeah. And so you knew actually new students who were at the table already from Port-au-Prince?

PILORGES: Yes. All the students from Port-au-Prince. It was so funny.

ALLEN: Most of the students who've landed here at Felix Varela are upper middle class, teenagers whose parents have the resources and contacts to send their kids out of the country to continue their education. But it still can be difficult. Pyloris left most of her friends behind and has had to downsize her plans for college. But she knows she's one of the lucky ones.

PILORGES: I can't complain because once again, I'm here, I'm fortunate. I have the chance to be in this school, whereas everybody else in Haiti, what about those who are still sleeping on, you know, grass? What about that? So I never complain about it. I try not to. My friends and I - we talk about it. We talk about our friends that we've lost. But other than that, there is nothing else that you can really do.

INSKEEP: So right now I need you to take out a sheet of paper, and I also need you to get...

ALLEN: In Ms. Perez's 10th grade Language Arts class, Johnny Pilorges(ph), Talia's brother, is already right at home. There are other Haitians in his class. And like most of the newcomers, he's trilingual in French, English, and Creole. He reads a poem he wrote in the first days after the earthquake. One he calls "Aftershock."

JOHNNY PILORGES: Do not worry about me for I am okay, but I beg that you not let your children see decay. So, I pay for others, I do not care about myself, I only wish that I could give my voice to someone, so they can have a cry for help.

ALLEN: The principal at Felix Varela High School, Connie Navarro, says immediately after the earthquake, the district sent crisis teams to the school. They've been counseling students, such as one young man, she recalls, who lost his mother and both sets of grandparents.

CONNIE NAVARRO: He wouldn't talk at the beginning, you know, and we didn't press him. And Friday, the guidance counselor told me that, you know, he came in and said I want to talk, and talked for two hours. And so we - you know, everybody agrees in their own way, and talks when they're ready to talk.

ALLEN: Superintendent of the Miami-Dade School District, Alberto Carvalho, says this first wave of Haitian students came well prepared academically. Most have plans for college, but now with the resumption of direct commercial flights from Port-au-Prince to Miami, Carvalho expects to see many more Haitian students enrolling in South Florida schools in the months ahead.

ALBERT CARVALHO: I believe that the second wave may, in fact, represent a group of children that comes in with specific needs and challenges that quite frankly are costly to provide. And that should not be a burden on the school system. We're going to accept them, hug them, love them, and teach them. But we are asking for assistance in paying for all of that.

ALLEN: Carvalho has already approached the state and federal government, asking for help in paying for education as well as language and counseling services he expects will be needed as more Haitian students arrive. Last week, he also led a group of Miami-Dade School officials on a trip to Haiti. They consulted with authorities there about how they can help in the effort to rebuild the island nation's educational system.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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