The teachers at Miami Edison Senior High School had a challenge on their hands.
Students recently arrived from Haiti and fluent in Haitian Creole were having trouble with assignments and exams — not because they didn’t grasp the material, but because they were still learning English.
So Pablo Ortiz, Edison’s former top administrator, came up with a plan: Let the students speak in Creole. A dual-language program was born.
It began as a pilot program last school year. About 55 ninth-graders were selected to take about 40 percent of their classes with Edison’s Creole-speaking teachers to see if the students’ test scores went up.
“It was phenomenal,” Principal Trynegwa Diggs said.
The program was based on Ortiz’s experience at Jorge Mas Canosa Middle School in Southwest Miami-Dade, where he worked with Spanish-speaking students. Ortiz was brought into Edison to turn it around when the long-struggling high school fended off a threat of closure from the state.
He left last year as the school district’s top principal and is now an assistant superintendent in the Miami-Dade school district.
Unlike foreign-language programs in other schools, where students fluent in English learn Mandarin Chinese or Portuguese to pick up a second language, Edison’s Creole experiment grew out of necessity. It is directed at selected students who might fall behind if they take classes only in English — but who may thrive if they’re given the chance to express what they know in their native language.
Administrators have seen such an improvement in students in the program that they have decided to expand it to include incoming 9th graders. The rising 10th graders who participated last year will remain as a group and take classes together.
To measure the program’s effectiveness, Edison has partnered with researchers at Barry University who are studying how learning in two languages affects the students’ academic progress. Students from Barry’s Adrian Dominican School of Education doing field work at nearby Edison mentioned the dual-language program to their professors, who quickly jumped at the chance of examining students’ academic scores and visiting the classrooms to observe and conduct interviews.
A team of six university professors plans to explore various aspects of the program, from how well it teaches students English as a second language to whether math scores improve when students who know the concepts are able to express themselves in their native Creole.
“The results that we get will be very diverse and sort of rich because of all the different perspectives,” said Ruth Ban, an associate professor of education in the department of curriculum and instruction who is part of the research team.
The project is in its early stages. Researchers visited the Creole classrooms last school year. They plan to interview students, teachers and administrators when their work takes off in earnest in the fall.
Edison’s own analysis shows that 91 percent of the students in the dual-language program made significant learning gains, Diggs said.
Aside from academics, students in the program attend all the same classes, and have bonded socially, said Assistant Principal James Dominique, a Creole speaker who has helped shepherd the group through the school year.
Jules Wendy, one of the students in the program, said having Creole-speaking teachers has helped him improve his academics since he moved to Miami from Port-au-Prince last year.
“Sometimes my history teacher will explain the subject in Creole to the students who don’t understand English,” said Jules, 16. “I would rather not have him speak Creole to me because I want to try to learn the language, but sometimes I need the help in Creole.”
Five of his eight teachers last year spoke Creole. The class materials were in English, but teachers helped translate verbally — especially in algebra and history, Jules said.
His mother, Violette Jeanty, said in Creole that she is happy her son understands tests better now.
“I noticed he is very into school, and I am very thankful,” Jeanty said. “I don’t think he would enjoy school without the extra help because it would be more difficult for him to adapt.”
Miami Herald staff writer Nadege Green contributed to this report.