How one organization is helping Haiti’s families transcend a failing, colonial education system
7 min read
Two hundred years ago, Haiti was founded on the idea that cultivating young minds was a revolutionary act. Today, as the world’s first Black republic faces escalating crises, Anseye Pou Ayiti is shaping a new generation of leaders by centering Haitian language and culture in the classroom.
Haiti is known for being the world’s first Black republic. But its 1804 constitution was pioneering in another way: its authors made Haiti one of the first countries to frame education as a right. “Their understanding of what liberty, freedom, and liberation looked like included the cultivation of young minds,” explains educator Nedgine Paul Deroly, “which I think was incredibly revolutionary.”
But today, that vision has been undercut. After decades of corrupt leadership, destructive foreign interference, and elite-class parents undermining public education, more than 90% of schools in the country are private. These schools are run by an assortment of religious organizations, nonprofits, and for-profit companies, with little oversight. They are funded by tuition fees, which are a barrier to attendance for many Haitian families alongside the cost of books, transportation, and uniforms. At the same time, most of these schools are severely under-resourced: Only 20% of teachers are formally trained. While some schools have good facilities, most lack seats, books, or a recess area for play.
In recent years, Haiti has faced extreme challenges—political instability in the wake of the 2021 assassination of the president, a gang violence crisis rippling out from Port-au-Prince, high rates of inflation. But even before, the impacts of a gutted education system were being felt across the country, especially in rural regions. In rural Haiti, only 30% of children complete primary school, only 10% complete secondary school, and only 1% continue on to higher education.
Something pernicious is happening in this education crisis, says Deroly, an Emerson Collective Dial Fellow. She notes that the Haitian culture she loves—a rich, beautiful culture that formed a locus of her life, even after moving to the United States at age three, and that encouraged her to return to the country after graduating from Harvard’s School of Education—is absent from classrooms.
Something even more pernicious is happening here. In Haiti's classrooms, the country's rich, beautiful culture is nowhere to be found.
In most Haitian schools, instruction is given in French — a language students aren’t nearly as comfortable with as the Haitian Kreyòl they speak at home. Lessons are focused on rote memorization and corporal punishment is too often the norm. Kids are, in essence, put on the conveyor belt of a colonial model of education and taught in ways both subtle and overt that their culture isn’t worthy. “The thing about the colonial approach that's really problematic is a rejection—and also just a hate—for local culture and identity and history,” says Deroly. “Kids say, ‘I don't feel joyful here. I don't want to come—it's a place I have to come.’ They are not encouraged to really flourish and be their own selves.”
Deroly is leading a better way forward, one that re-centers schools on Haiti’s people, traditions, and culture. In 2014, she founded Anseye Pou Ayiti, a nonprofit that’s reimagining the country’s education system and building a network of local leaders poised to restore faith in Haiti’s institutions. School by school and community by community, Anseye Pou Ayiti works with school leaders, teachers, parents, and students to co-create the classroom experience together. And it begins with bringing the music, language, and storytelling Deroly loves into class.
APA aims to liberate teachers and other adults in students' lives from the colonial trappings of the education system, too.
Anseye Pou Ayiti, or APA, operates in two of Haiti’s 10 departments, akin to states— Plateau Central, adjacent to Port-au-Prince, and the Artibonite, once the breadbasket of the country before foreign imports took over. Here, the organization partners with schools in underserved communities that are comfortable with opening their doors and sharing their educational data. “You have to agree as a school leader to be actively involved, as do your teachers—and we have to speak with parents too,” says Deroly. “We want to make sure that a school feels like they’re ready to be part of a long transformation.”
APA digs deep into the community to identify school leaders, teachers, and parents to become part of a two-year fellowship program, which guides them through the process of shifting curriculums, policies, even their mindset toward student well-being and community engagement. This transformation begins with making Haitian Kreyòl the language of instruction, instead of French. And instead of asking students to check their identity at the door, teachers are encouraged to look at how to bring it in. “We work to identify all the hundreds of ways our culture can come alive in any subject,” says Deroly. “Whether it's math, or science, or reading and social studies, we try to be very intentional and concrete about the ways in which you can bring in folklore, proverbs, song, and dance to make the curriculum relevant. You'll have a local carpenter come and talk about math as it relates to their work, or a social history expert come in and tell a story.”
Alberte Eveillard, a kindergarten teacher in Mirebalais in Plateau Central, credits APA with helping her make Haitian ideas a natural part of her lessons. “Whenever possible, I would remind students of significant events in our history as Haitian people,” she says. “We’d do coloring activities, sing songs, make arts and crafts to celebrate Dessalines Day, the Battle of Vertières, our Flag Day. I would take the time to narrate what happened, show them pictures. Help them understand the value.”
Eveillard noticed students paying a different kind of attention during these lessons. And she also heard in monthly meetings Anseye Pou Ayiti holds, bringing together fellows, students, and the community, that it was having an impact. “When the students went home, they’d share what they’d learned with others. Even while playing with other children, they’d demonstrate the songs they’d learned and repeat everything they’d taken in,” she says. “I even got testimonies from parents that they were assisting people in their neighborhood and demonstrating other positive behaviors.”
Genson Mayot, a school leader also in an APA partner school in Mirebalais, similarly describes how APA’s philosophy has shifted students’ orientation to school in a fundamental way. “APA has changed the approach to discipline, from corporal punishment to dialogue, motivation, awareness, and positive reinforcement,” he says. And he appreciates that critical thinking and problem solving are prioritized over memorization. “When I pass by classrooms, I see students' interest and their focus on the teacher. They seem very happy,” he says. They think more deeply, work in groups, and develop leadership skills—in and out of the classroom.
The benefits of this model reach adults, too. “Our teachers are a product of a system we are looking to dismantle. They’ve lived that pain and fear—and so we have to peel back the layers,” says Deroly. “We treat them as the skilled leaders they are and allow them to take responsibility for a classroom of 20, 30 minds that can be taught in very different ways.” Getting Haiti’s schools to this better place, in other words, means helping school leaders, teachers, and parents go on their own healing journeys.
APA's efforts to bring Haitian culture and history into the classroom has paid off as kids have increasingly approached school with an enthusiastic, collaborative spirit.
So far, Anseye Pou Ayiti has reached 16,000 students across 116 partner schools. Overall, their approach is showing powerful results. In APA schools, students’ academic performance has skyrocketed. Almost 90% have passed primary school on time and at grade level—nearly double the national averages.
But just as significant is the network of education advocates growing as a result—local leaders who see the ingenuity of Haitian people and believe in the power of communities to create change. By 2025, the organization is on track to have supported 50,000 civic leaders. And Anseye Pou Ayiti fellows are increasingly being called by the national Ministry of Education and consulted for their expertise.
As APA celebrates its tenth year of operation, the environment for this work is challenging. Deroly says that no community has been untouched by Haiti’s escalating crises—by trauma and uncertainty, by economic instability, by the fact that gang activity makes road travel difficult. “As an organization, we’ve had to adjust our budget due to inflation. We also decided to set up regional operations, to reduce the risk of travel,” says Deroly. “The ability to pay school fees, money for schools to provide student meals, food insecurity, hospital and bank closures, uncertain safety conditions are just some of the challenges.”
Still, Anseye Pou Ayiti continues its work, highlighting the beauty of Haitian culture and passing it on to new generations.
“Our core pillars of civic leadership and community agency matter—now more than ever. Our role is to continue to invest in equipping the local leaders who will bring sustainable solutions to the table. Our role is to provide positive examples of what is possible,” Deroly says. “Crises will come and crises will go, but I think there's something so powerful in the last 10 years of us setting the foundation for this movement. We want to plant the seeds, so that it outlives us.”
Learn how an education-justice advocate is building a movement for educational justice and equity in Haiti.