Nedgine Paul: Proving what is possible in Haiti

Nedgine Paul founded the nonprofit Anseye Pou Ayiti -- roughly translated as "teach for Haiti" -- to improve the educational system in Haiti. Photo courtesy of Anseye Pou Ayiti

Reforming the Haitian educational system is a challenge. But by focusing on the country’s rich culture, customs and community, it is possible to make a difference, says the founder of a leadership development organization for teacher-leaders in Haiti.

Nedgine Paul, born in Haiti, was raised in the United States, but her parents made sure she grew up understanding and feeling proud of her Haitian culture.

As an adult, she has chosen to return to the country of her birth to found Anseye Pou Ayiti, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the quality of teaching and learning in Haiti’s schools by offering a two-year training fellowship for young leaders as primary school teachers.

Anseye Pou Ayiti’s method stresses Haitian culture, customs and community, and has the ambitious goal of serving as a model and resource for what is possible and therefore influencing a reform of the nation’s educational system.

It’s a difficult task. The public school system is in such poor shape that almost 90 percent of the country’s schools are private, with little accountability or consistency. Children are primarily taught in French -- not Creole, most of the children’s native tongue -- and the system is based on a colonial model of rote memorization and testing.

“Kids are learning and growing up beautifully in Haitian homes, but when they get to school, it’s as if they’ve entered into a 19th-century classroom,” Paul said. “They’re told, ‘Don’t play, don’t collaborate, don’t ask questions; just sit, memorize, repeat after me.’”

The Haitian republic has a proud revolutionary history -- it was founded in 1804 after the enslaved people revolted, resulting in the most successful slave rebellion in history -- but too often it is viewed only through the lens of need, Paul said. In addition, the educational system has ignored -- or even disdained -- local culture. Paul wants to change that.

Anseye Pou Ayiti -- roughly translated as "teach for Haiti" -- recruits current teachers or young professionals interested in becoming teachers for two-year fellowships in which they are placed in rural, underserved primary schools and receive intensive coaching and professional development. The three-year-old nonprofit works in five communities, and aims in five years to have 250 teacher-leader graduates who have impacted 16,000 kids in at least 75 schools across the country.

Before co-founding the organization, Paul worked for Partners In Health, Achievement First and the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut. She has a bachelor’s degree from Yale College and an Ed.M. in international education policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

In 2014, she was named among the top global social innovators by Echoing Green. She was selected for the 2016 Forbes list of “30 Under 30” social entrepreneurs and was named a 2016 Praxis Fellow.

An Episcopalian motivated by her Christian faith to pursue this work, Paul also has been named a 2016 Episcopal Church Foundation Fellow.

Paul spoke to Faith & Leadership via Skype from Haiti about her ambitious goals for Anseye Pou Ayiti. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: You could have stayed in the United States and made your life and your career doing something a lot easier than what you’re doing now. What is your motivation for working in Haiti?

No. 1 is my faith, very honestly. I believe in what is unseen, and I believe in community. All of my definitions of respect and equity and justice are tied into what I learned from the Bible and what I learned from church. I believe that that mustard seed can grow into something so much bigger.

I will forever be indebted to my parents for helping me not to forget where I came from. It’s where I was born, but also [it’s what I learned about] the roots of our revolutionary past and what was once global leadership, in terms of Haiti’s ability to show what was possible.

I would be so grateful if just one part of our movement and one part of our organization has a few people saying, “We didn’t know that was possible, but you helped us understand that this is possible for kids, for our country, and for any other countries who are struggling to show that education equity is possible.” So that’s what keeps me going.

Q: For people who don’t know much about the Haitian educational system, what’s the issue you are addressing?

Unfortunately, the school system right now is failing [children] in three ways. One, teaching methodologies are outdated and ineffective. So you have a system still very much tied to this outdated system of rote memorization and passing tests, with very little critical thinking, inquiry, problem solving skills, let alone culturally responsive pedagogy.

This sector is probably one of the last remaining vestiges of our colonial past. We’re super proud of everything we did to free ourselves from that system, and yet the school system is still very much tied to that.

The second is that there’s very little leadership and capacity building happening in schools.

And then the third piece is accountability. After the earthquake in 2010, there were so many different efforts -- people have always wanted to help, [but] the challenge is they’re siloed. Not enough coordination of efforts, and not knowing what works, because very little data is being used to prove what is truly having a transformative impact on students’ outcomes.

Q: You emphasize Haitian culture, customs and community. Why is that important, and how does it work in practice?

There is an overarching message that has said Haitian culture is inferior: “You all led yourselves out of slavery, yes, but ever since, you have not been able to break the chains of poverty and instability and corruption.”

So I tried to ask, “What has been Haiti at its best? What has led us to not only be revolutionary and freedom fighters but also to truly have success as a people?” And it always came back to leveraging the assets of what’s local.

And so it’s part of the model to have children understand that to be a proud and active citizen of your nation, you have to know who you are and what your identity looks like. And so a lot of civics and citizenship building is incorporated into our methodology and classrooms.

That’s the why. The how -- I’ll start with culture.

One of the biggest things is our native language. We want our kids to be bilingual, if not trilingual, but to value and start with Creole. And so we’ve been doing a lot of work to implement that in our curriculum. This approach is supported by long-standing research that proves that starting in one’s mother tongue only accelerates one’s ability to learn another language, and learn it well.

The other thing about culture is that kids are learning and growing up beautifully in Haitian homes, but when they get to school, it’s as if they’ve entered into a 19th-century classroom.

They’re told, “Don’t play, don’t collaborate, don’t ask questions; just sit, memorize, repeat after me.”

And it’s unacceptable, because that’s a wall between how they’re raised as Haitian children in homes versus how they’re told to be Haitian students in the classroom. And so we’re trying to break down that wall, because it's possible to instill pride of culture and customs in the way learning is carried out in classrooms. We think it’s very powerful, for instance, to incorporate a game that children play at home in a way they’re learning math, or to incorporate Haitian proverbs and riddles and folk stories in the way they learn social studies and history.

And that, according to our data, has accelerated children’s growth and learning dramatically.

And then the third piece is about community. For too long, we’ve seen a really destructive pattern of kids thinking about “me, me, me,” instead of “us.” And so what we’re trying to do in our classrooms is re-integrate collaborative learning, sharing, small group work and collective leadership.

So if there’s a problem in my classroom, let’s get together and have a committee of students fix it. If there’s something going on in our community, how can I use your strengths and my strengths to make it better together?

Q: Is your work faith-based?

Being raised by an Episcopal priest and being very rooted in my faith, from a young age I started to realize that faith was not just words but actions. I believe truly that Jesus was a social justice warrior.

And so that has infused my definition of equity and justice and respect. And so it will probably come as no surprise that a lot of the core values of our organization are just that.

By no design of our own, but I think by God’s great plans, every one of our inaugural fellowship members and staff were believers, actually. That is not a selection criterion and definitely not a requirement, but it’s been really powerful to see how Christian leadership, church-based and community leadership has beautifully set up the roots of this movement.

And the other thing I should mention is that many churches right now operate schools in the most difficult and rural parts of our country; in our 30-plus schools, more than half of them are church-affiliated.

I think I’m speaking on behalf of many members of our community -- we have an image that exists beyond what’s here on earth. So it’s been really powerful to be able to unite ourselves around faith and belief that something’s better and something’s bigger and brighter.

Q: And what does your early assessment show you about what’s working or not working about your concept?

I think in terms of what’s working is the three C’s -- culture, customs and community. It takes hold of people in ways that we underestimated.

It has just held onto people and captured their attention in really powerful ways, including having community elders, retired professors, retired teachers saying, “I know what you’re going to do; I caught a glimpse of it. I know what that looks like. I recognize that approach as being authentic. Let me come on board.”

And I think part of this is our very positive, asset-based language. Instead of saying, “Everything’s broken; replace it all,” we’re saying, “Let’s use what is great and build on it.”

The other thing that’s been really powerful for us is peer learning. A lot of people were skeptical that we would find staff in the country.

And it’s been so beautiful to have teachers who have been in the classroom for three to five years joined by those who are just entering into their careers, because we’ve accelerated each other’s learning based on strengths and weaknesses they both bring to the table.

Something else that’s working well is this idea of students being leaders. At one point, when we started our work, we were focused on the next generation of teachers who are becoming leaders of self, of schools, of communities. We even call our selected cohort members “teacher-leaders.”

And then we started to realize that we won’t be successful unless the ethos and the principles and the civics and citizenship we’re building among our teachers do not just trickle down but truly become activated and catalyzed by students.

And so we have incredible anecdotes -- of second-graders leading school reform projects and fourth-graders pooling money so that they can have supplies for their schools.

In many ways, our students will be the leaders who lead us forward even before the teachers, and that’s an important piece of our work.

One thing that has been difficult is that leadership is broken in many places in Haiti. And so you can try to improve it and inform it at the classroom and school level, but then you have the politics that are everywhere in the country.

And so the big question becomes: How do you walk before you run? How do you do what you do really, really well, without being distracted or discouraged by some of the bigger ecosystem challenges that we face?

Q: So what’s your goal as you expand and you scale your project?

Our scale is depth. How deep can you go so that the leader you’ve invested in is equipped to do so much in his or her community, and the impact of that person is sustainable?

How do we equip students so it will carry them, not just through fourth grade or fifth or sixth grade, but through secondary school and through university?

Q: What success have you had with your teachers?

During the two years of our fellowship program, we’re preparing them to play different roles in society as education advocates.

Some of them are becoming school directors. Some of them are staying in the classroom and teaching peers on the weekends -- for instance, leading community development projects alongside members of the community.

We have some of our teachers who are teaching full time and then every week run a weekly radio program to spread the news and answer questions about true education equity so all kids get quality in their schooling.

So those are some of those examples, but overall, it’s about Anseye Pou Ayiti figuring out like-minded partners in the country who want to help us create career pathways for our graduates in education.

One of the things that we love about partnership and community building is that we already have many partners who are waiting for our alumni graduates so that they can become teacher coaches, spreading the approach of Anseye Pou Ayiti across an even greater number of schools across the country.

We believe our graduates are uniquely equipped and trained to help their peers.

What we’re trying to do with our movement is not just have an anecdote about what is possible but build a framework and structures and systems so that we can replicate it.

We’re in it for the long haul. Community building, capacity building, local development -- it doesn’t happen in two, three years. And so we’re just so grateful that people have stuck with us from the very beginning and understand that our horizon is not two or three years, but it’s 20, 25 years.