Chronicle Of A School Year

Brit’s Academy 1st Anniversary ~ A Story of Miracles

The Be Like Brit Program Committee has been meeting faithfully every Wednesday morning over the last nine years beginning in Fr. John Madden’s office, then moving on to the dining room in the home of Cherylann and Len in Holden, and ending up at the new OC in Worcester. Nowadays, we hold Zoom meetings and have included Mami Love and Myster Way, our two V.I.P. leaders at Brit’s Home.

Over the years, now and then, one of us would comment: Wouldn’t it be nice if someday we had our own school at Brit’s Home? We did have a small group of children in our “BLB Academy” who were taught in-house by two teachers but soon came to realize we wanted this same experience for all of our children. Ongoing reports of children being hit in school, stress from large classes and lack of attention, and lessons and homework focusing on rote memorization led us to take action back in the winter of 2019. We knew that we could provide an education for our children that was developmentally sound, safe, and centered on the values in our mission statement. 

I began meeting with our Program Director, Myster Way, and a few, key staff members to begin the dialogue of what it would be like to actually form our own school. Was it realistic? Did we have the space? Where would the teachers come from? Would the children like the idea? Could we convince our Board of Directors that this was a sound initiative? What would a schedule look like? The conversation began and I gave weekly reports on our progress to the Program Committee and our Board approved moving forward. 

Based on the age of our children at the time and the available space in the house, we decided that we would house grades two-six (primary) from 8:15 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. with an hour long lunch/play break at noon. Each classroom would have its own teacher and assistant and “specials’ were included in the schedule: music, art, technology/computer literacy, health education, and physical education. Each child would have an hour of English instruction each day emphasizing oral communication and listening comprehension. English Corner would be held on weekends to provide additional practice in speaking. 

I continued to meet with the staff at Brit’s Home throughout the spring and summer. We drafted schedules, discussed classroom space with Len (who designed new classrooms); hired teachers and assistants – many of who were serving as caregivers already and/or had their teaching license, developed curriculum for teaching English, Creole, French, Social Science, Physical Science, Math, and Literacy – all subjects taught in the primary grades, and came up with the name of our new school – Brit’s Academy!   

We decided that the children would wear uniforms as well as the teaching staff. We turned the Program Office into a Teachers’ Room where they could have their lunch, meetings, and space to work on lessons and to keep supplies. Two teachers served as co-principals to offer support to the teachers, to moderate any classroom issues, to lead meetings, and to check on lesson plans.

During the spring of 2019 I offered staff training in active learning methodology which was to become the hallmark of our school. And here is where the first miracle took place. Teachers who had grown up in the Haitian school system with only rote memorization and recitation embraced this new form of teaching in a way that I would never have imagined. During the training, I modeled active learning and then had them develop their own lessons – no memorization allowed!  

Throughout the school year, time and time again, teachers came to understand the value of engaging the learner, providing incentives, taking snack breaks, and including time for rest and play. Teachers took their classes outdoors in the garden to learn, took them on walks and field trips to the ocean, read stories to them, conducted experiments, brought art, music, and technology in to their lessons, and included hands-on learning activities. Staff training continued throughout the school year until the end of February 2020 with the onset of the pandemic. However, I was still able to provide training each week via Zoom.

I remember when we opened Brit’s Academy on September 3. Class pictures were taken, speeches were given by the staff and myself, the Haitian flag was raised with song, and I had the honor of ringing the bell to start the year. We were off and running! By the end of the week, the staff just looked at each other and said how could this be? How could the first week have run so smoothly? What transpired exceeded our expectations. Children vowed they would never go back to the public school.

And guess what we witnessed as the school year progressed? Our children thrived, they were happy, behavioral issues were non-existent, they had time to play after school, they received individual attention and help with any homework – and they did not want to go back to the public schools. The whole “vibe,” as Len likes to call it, changed in the building. Visitors and volunteers could immediately feel something different when they walked in the door. Children were well-behaved (knowing that “kids will be kids” at times!), they felt empowered in helping to make house rules and polices, they were more relaxed throughout the day, and they looked forward to each day of learning. When Myster Way told me that children were even excited to take their quarterly exams to demonstrate how much they had learned, I knew we were doing something right!

Because we chose to start with only the primary grades (43 children) the first year, we had 22 children in grades seven-nine continue with their schooling outside of Brit’s Home. However, they came back late afternoon to have their lunch, relax, and do any homework they had. 

We introduced some new things in to the school day as we moved throughout the year. First, Dr. Gail Herman, a nationally renowned storyteller and former teacher, told stories via Zoom each week to different classes. She taught the art of storytelling complementing the stories with music and mime. She first focused on Haitian Folktales and then children learned to produce their own stores. During my visits I was able to reinforce the art of storytelling and worked with different classes in presenting their stories in English. 

Second, we started a “Race to Kindle” program where a child was chosen each month for exemplary motivation to read. A new library was created in the dining room where independent reading was encouraged. 

Third, a Teacher of the Month was selected by the staff and received a certificate signed by Myster Way and me. Teachers chose a child to be Citizen of the Week in each classroom on the basis of citizenship, kindness, helpfulness, and motivation. These types of recognitions helped both staff and children to strive to do their best in teaching and learning. 

When I arrived at Brit’s Home in October of 2019 for a week of staff training, we discovered that all schools in Haiti would be closing due to severe political unrest. I arrived on a Sunday afternoon and Myster Way and I had to immediately figure out how we were going to keep all of our children (all 65 now!) at Brit’s Academy. Overnight, we had to allocate space for grades for seven-nine and re-design teaching assignments. By the end of the day on Monday, the second miracle occurred. All of the children adapted to their new school environment; everything went smoothly and we finished 2019 with notable academic performance. 

In January of 2020 schools were reopened and it was decided that our secondary school students would return to their respective schools to complete the school year. But that was short-lived. By the beginning of March, all schools were closed once again now due to the pandemic and we continued Brit’s Academy, once again, with all of the children. But this time we were in a lockdown; no one could enter or leave Brit’s Home in order to keep the staff and children safe. Teachers and caregivers signed contracts saying they agreed to the lockdown and were willing to help the children achieve a successful end to the school year. This was our third miracle. 

Due to the extraordinary leadership of Brit’s Home and the extreme dedication of the staff, children completed their final exams, they assumed roles to help with the cooking and cleaning, they laughed, played chess, worshipped God in song and prayer, held singing competitions, and ended the school year on June 26 with a celebration and awards for performance.

We added an enrichment program to the curriculum as no Britsionarys or Be Like Brit staff were able to get back to Haiti after February. A program called, “Connect, Engage, Learn” was developed where experts in the U.S. and in Haiti present on a variety of subjects via Zoom. This program continues throughout the summer. 

I attribute these miracles to God’s grace and mercy upon these children and staff members. Against the odds of unrest in the country, a virus that threatens to do harm to many, in the unpredictability of schooling and in an extended lockdown, our children adapted to a changing environment in ways we never could have imagined. They demonstrated remarkable resilience, matured, and were eager to begin another school year at Brit’s Academy. Being able to adapt to new and different environments is key to success for any person. Our children, at a young age, have already experienced this and it will serve them well as future leaders in Haiti or elsewhere.

Our second year begins on September 7 with all of our 65 children now in grades 3-10. We plan to hire teachers for the secondary grades; teachers who are committed and excited to assume the active learning approach. Cherylann and Len’s dream came true and I am sure we will witness more miracles. I would like to think that Britney has something to do with this.

Thank you for your ongoing support of Brit’s Academy and helping to make this dream a reality. We could not give a better gift to our children and that is the best education possible. If you would like to learn more about our school or would like to donate in any way, please contact me at debbie@belikebrit.org or contact our Development Director, Rick Muhr, at rick@belikebrit.org.