By JEFF BARLIS
Shalala Dubuisson was 13 years old when a massive earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010, killing tens of thousands of people and turning her family’s world upside down. The last thing the traumatized teenager needed when her parents sent her to live in America in the aftermath was more turmoil, but that’s what she found in a place that was supposed to be a refuge.
Shalala’s new school in South Florida turned out to be different than her school in Haiti. Less discipline. More disrespect for teachers. And Shalala’s inability to speak English at first made her a target for bullies.
Problems continued in ninth grade, when Shalala began attending her zoned high school in Homestead. That’s when Christina Toussaint, Shalala’s older sister and de facto mom in the U.S., decided enough was enough.
“In less than a month she got into like three or four fights,” Christina said.
Connections within the local Haitian community led Christina to Ebenezer Christian School, a small, orderly school tucked between a shopping plaza and a residential area in Florida City. She needed to find the right fit for Shalala and also wanted to enroll Chanukah, her then 6-year-old sister.
Principal Rose Flore Charles, who is Haitian, told Christina and her parents about the Step Up For Students scholarship, a program that gives lower-income families tuition assistance to choose from more than 1,700 schools statewide.
“They could not afford a private school,” Charles said. “It was tough … especially because (Shalala) was very emotional after the earthquake.”
Even a glimpse into Shalala’s backstory makes it easy to see why.
On Jan. 12, 2010, Shalala was staying late for math tutoring in Port-au-Prince when, suddenly, the world shook. She ran out of her school in time to watch half of it collapse.
As the ground continued to shake, Shalala could hear screams. Everyone was running, so she started running, too.
“I got lost,” she said. “I know the way to my house, but that day was so crazy. You couldn’t make a phone call because everything was down. You just had to wait and see if (your family) came home or not.”
They did. Everyone was safe. But when the dust literally settled, her family faced a life-changing choice: Shalala and Chanukah could stay in Haiti and wait at least six months for a semblance of normalcy, or they could move to Florida to live with their sister.
With education at the top of their priorities list, Shalala’s parents decided their children should start anew in America. That meant immediately enrolling in a new school.
“That was my dad’s main focus,” Shalala said. “He was like ‘You’re not going to sit here. You could have done that in Haiti’.”
Shalala arrived in South Florida speaking only Creole and French. The fun-loving girl with the big smile and wide eyes wasn’t noticeably subdued by the trauma she had witnessed, but below the surface the fears that resulted from living through a magnitude 7 earthquake lingered.
“Even going inside the airport and parking the car, she was like, ‘Oh my god, I don’t know if we can be in there,’” Christina said. “You know, all those big buildings.”
At Ebenezer Christian, the safe, nurturing environment allowed anxieties to fade. With one-on-one attention, Shalala was able to focus more on academics and tackle her weaknesses, particularly in math, where she was performing at a fifth-grade level.
“According to (her neighborhood school), her math level was fine,” said Charles. “But when we gave her our assessment test, we had to pull her back.”
Shalala needed an extra year to catch up. Christina, who works at Bed, Bath & Beyond, paid the math teacher to tutor Shalala after school for six months.
“She picked it up very slowly in the beginning,” Charles said, “and after that she was one of the best math students that we ever had here. … She became a straight A and B student.”
Shalala graduated in June 2016 with a 3.24 GPA. She now attends Miami Dade College, where she is studying to be a social worker. Three days a week she returns to Ebenezer Christian to help students in what else? Math!
Despite that triumph, dark memories of that terrible day in Haiti remain. Tall buildings are especially troublesome, but Shalala confidently seeks challenges. She wants to move to New York City after her first two years of college.
She knows, now, that she can face her fears – and overcome them.
About Ebenezer Christian School
ECS is a non-denominational school located at 530 SW 1st St. in Florida City. Founded in 2010, the school is accredited by the National Association of Private Schools. It operates year-round using the self-paced Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) curriculum, which requires academic mastery (grades of 80 or higher). The ACE curriculum also emphasizes Biblical scripture, character training and spiritual growth. There are 50 students in grades K-12, including 29 on the income-based Step Up For Students scholarship. The school uses the Stanford Achievement Test. Tuition is $6,000 a year for students in grades K-5; $9,000 a year for students in grades 6-12. Lower-income students using the Step Up scholarship do not pay additional tuition.
Jeff Barlis works on Step Up’s Policy and Public Affairs team. Reach him at email@example.com.