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Improving the School System in Haiti

Carolina Tavarez has been working to help this severely underdeveloped language-education system. She is now building a Central Library in Anse-à-Pitres.

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Lady Carolina Tavarez

Tavarez, who is of mixed Dominican and Haitian descent, grew up in neighboring Dominican Republic before immigrating to the United States with her family when she was 13. She maintains close familial ties to the island and received early exposure to the long list of challenges facing Haiti.

ann1Tavarez's parents were involved in Christian Missionary work and took her as a child to see the crushing effects of poverty in several of the most destitute areas of the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Haiti.

She was inspired by the resilience of Haiti’s people who endure daily life amid the worst poverty in the western hemisphere.

Tectonic Shifts: from Exposure to Action
Tavarez was working on her undergraduate studies in Spanish, Latin American and Hemispheric Studies, and Education at UC Davis when a massive earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010. Her uncle was counted among the staggering number of dead.

ann2Seeking to participate in the recovery effort by any means possible, she co-founded the non-profit organization Ann Prepare Lavni (APL) with her sister Lidia Tavarez, which soon spearheaded an effort to bring much needed school supplies and hygiene products to Haitian communities devastated by the earthquake.

APL, or “let us prepare the future” in Haitian Creole, set up collection boxes on the UC Davis campus and in front of local businesses in the greater-Sacramento area, from which they collected generous donations of supplies.

ann3But the project reached new heights when Tavarez was awarded a $2,000 grant from the UC Davis Blum Center’s Poverty Alleviation through Action (PATA) grants program, an initiative which offers funds to students pursuing fieldwork to alleviate poverty and/or inequality around the globe.

Tavares targeted Haiti’s linguistic divide, which continues to pose serious economic barriers to the country’s development.

Haiti’s official languages are Creole and French, but the country’s colonial legacy has left a more complicated reality on the ground. Creole is spoken exclusively by about 90% of the population, and the remaining 10% – comprised mainly of the country’s ruling elite – speak French.

ann4Yet French remains the language of instruction in Haiti’s schools – a policy that has effectively denied the majority of Haitians an adequate education.

In Anse-à-Pitres, which sits on Haiti’s Southeastern border with the Dominican Republic, knowledge of Spanish is also vital for participation in the local economy.

“Haitians must cross to the Dominican Republic side to open businesses and sell their goods in the markets. But Spanish is required to communicate with Dominicans and compete in the markets, which is their main source of income,” says Tavarez.

Hardships for Locals and Visitors Alike
Upon arrival, Tavarez volunteered at two primary schools, where she taught classes in English, French, and Spanish, provided advanced training to two foreign language teachers, and worked to improve the school’s curricular development.

ann5Tavarez found that the two schools lacked basic necessities such as water, electricity, textbooks, teacher’s manuals, and even chairs. The scarcity of school supplies forced Tavarez to dream up a number of imaginative solutions, such as using a wooden construction board as table top. Such limitations were eased in-part by donated text books she brought with her from the United States.

Tavarez also faced a large dose of skepticism from locals about her motives for the project, not least because of her Dominican nationality. Had she come to exploit the locals, or somehow profit from the venture?

The skepticism sprang from a long history of less-than-amicable relations between Haitians and Dominicans and a distrust of foreigners’ intentions more broadly – for sound historical reasons.

Threats to personal health and safety posed an even larger challenge. Due to a cholera outbreak in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, Tavarez was forced to sleep on the Dominican side of the Island and avoid all food cooked in Haiti.

Exceeding all Expectations
With limited time and resources to make an impact in Anse-à-Pitres, Tavarez hoped that measured improvements to the foreign language program in both primary schools would continue in her absence.

It seemed an uphill battle in a country where education is dominated by private schools and scarcely any funding is allocated to educating the poor.

But the results of APL’s pilot program soon exceed all expectations.

“After I returned to the U.S., I learned that the teachers were now conducting these classes for free, which is very important because free education does not exist in Haiti,” said Tavarez during a radio interview with the Talanta show.

Perhaps more remarkably, the Haitian government donated two acres of land to APL’s project in order to build the first-ever library in Anse-à-Pitres.

ann7APL then succeeded in securing the help of a Dominican construction firm to draw-up blueprints for the library and provide construction equipment free-of-charge. APL is in the midst of a major fundraising campaign to raise $43,000 USD necessary to build the library.

On a personal level, Tavarez’s field experience in Haiti has helped direct her research as she completes her senior honors thesis on Haiti’s educational system.

She he has also been invited to speak to university students in the Dominican Republic about getting involved in APL’s project, and recently visited Anse-à-Pitres to monitor its progress.

Tavarez credits the opportunity given to her by the UC Davis Blum Center’s PATA grant for the snowballing of success that followed APL’s early achievements in Haiti.

ann8“Thanks to a grant from the Blum Center, the idea of moving APL’s work from the Sacramento area to Haiti itself suddenly became possible. When Anse-à-Pitres teachers continued to teach foreign language courses free of charge, and land was donated for the library, I know we were on to something big.”

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