Support systems build for growing Haitian population in Springfield

A surge in the number of Springfield residents from Haiti has resulted in an outpouring of language assistance and additional forms of help from the Springfield City School District and others who are trying to meet their needs.

“Four years ago we didn’t have a Haitian population,” says Pamela Shay, director of federal programs for Springfield City School District.

Now the district has about 200 students from Haitian families, many speaking Haitian Creole, French or Spanish, she says. In the past, the district has had two or three bilingual assistants who speak students’ native languages in order to help in classrooms and communicate with parents. Now the district has nine, she says.

“I think we will see growth continue for a few years,” Shay says.

That includes not only students from Haiti, but also those hailing from elsewhere around the world. She says the district is adding non-English speaking students weekly and has students who speak languages as varied as Japanese, German, Tagalog and Portuguese.

About 10 percent of students enrolled in the district have a native or home language other than English, Shay says. Of those 750 students, about 550 of them need additional support to improve their English-language skills. And students who don’t require additional support may have parents or guardians who need translation services.

While Haitian students can be found in every school building, Springfield High School has the most, Shay says. The elementary schools also have a large population, particularly on the city's Southside, and in middle school most are enrolled at Hayward. At Clark Early Learning Center, which houses a preschool program, 25 students have a Haitian background of the almost 350 total students enrolled.

Estimates about the number of Springfield and Clark County residents from Haiti vary. Shay says she has been told there are about 7,500 Haitians in the area, although she suspects the number is lower based on the number of students enrolled in the school district.

Davah Germain says there were already several thousand people from Haiti when he arrived in Springfield almost two years ago, and he suspects that number might have doubled in the meantime.

“And people are still coming,” he says.

Germain left Haiti due to political issues and moved to Miami, Fla., in 1985. The 63-year-old moved to Springfield at the urging of a friend. Word is spreading about the ease in which newcomers can find jobs, particularly in manufacturing.

“They’re coming to stay,” he says. “They’re coming to make Springfield their home.”

Some face language barriers, and other issues, too. Germain says housing, robberies and racism are among the other problems some families face.

Germain, who owns Labor Management LLC and purchased a pizza franchise, also translates for the Springfield District Council of St. Vincent de Paul.

Peggy Johnson is a longtime volunteer with the council, and she oversees its community navigator program to help the local Haitian and Hispanic communities.

“I applied for a grant last year when I started to see a lot of Haitians moving into town,” she says.

That $10,000 grant from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, along with another $10,000 from a private organization in Springfield, is helping the program fund 20 hours of services each week. The organization also now has two Haitians employed who speak Haitian Creole and Spanish. The extra services started in September.

St. Vincent de Paul often acts as a referral, she says, directing individuals and families to services, including healthcare, benefits, food and clothing. Many also need help applying for work permits, Temporary Protected Status or asylum. St. Vincent de Paul has several computers and can assist with filling out the forms.

Hours for the assistance at the organization’s new location at 2415 E. High St. are 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, as well as 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Evening hours are available by appointment.

“We are here to help the Haitian community and help them be as successful as they can be as community members,” Johnson says.

At Springfield City Schools, the district also is priming students and their families for success. The website is multilingual, Shay says, and documents, such as student handbooks, class schedules, forms and flyers, all are translated. The curriculum has been modified to ensure that it is receptive and, for example, that the books that are being used are available in the necessary languages.

Some classrooms also have begun labeling items in multiple languages so that, for example, the word for “pencil” is not only in English, but also in Spanish, French and Haitian Creole. This, too, helps English-speaking students build their vocabulary in other languages, she says.

In addition, the district recently was one of 20 in Ohio that was awarded a Reaching All Students Through Language and Literacy grant. The $200,000 grant will be used by the district to help improve the outcomes of English-language learners. Research has indicated that the techniques used to teach non-English-speaking students also work for English-speaking students, so the grant will benefit the whole district, Shay says.

Springfield is attractive for new Haitian residents not only for the job opportunities here, but also because of the services available and the receptive and welcoming population, Shay says. It’s a small town with the resources of larger locations.

“Word of mouth travels quickly through this population,” Shay says. “If one family member comes here and is successful, then others will follow.”

Read more articles by Diane Erwin.