Haitian Students Find Local Safety Net: An Interview with Flanbwayan Director Darnell Benoit

Jaisal Noor Mar 11, 2010

EDUCATION ADVOCATE: Flanbwayan director Darnell Benoit in her office in Flatbush, Brooklyn PHOTO: JAISAL NOOR

Worried about Haitian young adults slipping through the cracks in New York City, Brooklyn community activist Darnell Benoit founded Flanbwayan, The Haitian Literacy Project, in 2005. Benoit currently serves as the director of the Flatbush-based educational and advocacy nonprofit, serving the needs of local Haitian youth. The Indypendent caught Benoit for a moment in her office before she left for a two-week mission to Haiti organized by the group Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees.

Jaisal Noor: How did you get involved in Flanbwayan and Haitian immigrant education advocacy?

Darnell Benoit: For 15 years, I worked as an English as a Second Language teacher in adult education programs. Back then, I noticed a lot of young people, 17, 18 years old, were coming to those programs. When I started speaking with them, I realized that they should be in high school instead of in an adult program. I decided to focus on Haitian immigrants because, in doing the research, I found it was a huge problem in the community. Even today there is not an organization like Flanbwayan working on education needs for new immigrants. We also collaborate with other immigrant organizations.

For our community, focusing on education is very important because many parents are working, and a lot do not speak English. We work not only to help students get access to education, but to advocate for better programs. In the public education system when, as a new immigrant, you enter at an early age, things are okay. Even if you have difficulty learning English, you have time [to learn it]. But the problems starts for immigrant students who enter directly into high school. That’s why we just focus on students age 14 to 21, with a very special focus on older students, whom the city calls “overage.”

JN: What are some of the typical challenges that these students are faced with?

DB: Our community used to have six thriving bilingual programs, they no longer exist, because the city has phased them out. The DOE [Department of Education] insists that there are still two, but they don’t exist. That’s one option our students don’t have that other communities have. For Haitian students, many enter behind in school. This means you might be 17, but educationally you are not like an 11th grader. A 17-year-old student might have just completed eighth grade. Flanbwayan is here for students who are marginalized, for students falling through the cracks, because they are the most challenging. They are the hardest to educate. But everyone deserves a quality education, so some of the issues that we have are students with low or no literacy. The DOE initiated a program called SIFE [Students with Interrupted Formal Education]. It’s a great initiative, but it’s not available in our community.

JN: In 2006, the Department of Education announced plans to “phase down” Samuel J. Tilden High School, which provides English as a Second Language services for Haitian students, and the school is closing this June. What effect will this have on these students?

DB: Tilden is a big high school and has been serving Haitian kids for ages. I didn’t grow up in Brooklyn, but most of my friends who grew up in Brooklyn went to Tilden. The high school had a vital bilingual program, but in recent years the school was “failing,” and the DOE decided to close the school. There will be 40 to 50 students at Tilden in June who will not graduate. What people don’t realize is that when a school closes, it doesn’t mean all the students get a high school diploma. It means the students have to fend for themselves. The DOE doesn’t have a plan for them.

JN: How has the earthquake in Haiti affected the work that your organization does and the students you work with?

DB: We’re just happy we’re here to welcome students coming in after the earthquake. For students [coming in from Haiti], Jan. 12 is the last time they have been in school. Returning to school is the one thing that helps bring normalcy back to their lives, because that’s what is going to help them with the trauma they have been through. We’re able to help them meet other young people, so that they can start building their lives here and start picking up where they left off.

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