Summer camp helps Haitian migrants adjust, get ready for school year in Boston | Dorchester Reporter – Dorchester Reporter

Staff and counselors at the IFSI Summer Camp helped returning students and newly arrived students assimilate in preparation for the school year. The five-week program pivoted to welcome Haitian migrant students who just arrived from the Texas border. Photos courtesy of Teddy Keser Mombrun
The start of the new school term is just days away, and most BPS students are preparing to return to the classroom. But for many newly arrived Haitian migrant students coming via the Texas border, summer has been a time to prepare for the new experience of simply being in a classroom.
Despite being well into elementary school age, many of them, who began landing in Boston earlier this year, will be in school for the first time in their lives next week. Given such a large gap to close before school begins, Mattapan’s Immigrant Family Services Institute (IFSI) partnered this summer with Boston Public Schools (BPS) and others to transform their traditional summer camp into a boot camp for basic school preparation.
Said Dr. Geralde Gabeau, executive director of IFSI: “This was so important for them. It helps them to understand what it means to go to a school. … They’ve never stepped foot in a classroom because they have been travelling with their parents…It will really help them when they do go to school.”
The IFSI Summer Camp has been in operation for six years, but this summer it expanded to about 250 students per day in a five-week program that ended in August. The growth came via migrant Haitian families who ended up in Dorchester and Mattapan after a long journey through South and Central America that ended at the Texas border in 2021. IFSI integrated the newly arrived students with the existing students to help acclimate them to a school setting.
IFSI Program Director Jennifer Pamphile said it was a challenging five weeks – but progress was made. She worries about how some of the new arrivals will do in classrooms this fall, noting steep learning curves on basic concepts as many of the parents are struggling with the children.
For “a lot of the newly arrived students … just sitting down and not talking when the teacher’s talking is very hard for them…So many people might be worried about them not knowing ABC’s or 123’s, but it goes so far beyond that.”
Since the opening of camp on July 5, she said, there were successes and they were able to get kids somewhat used to a classroom – exposing them to academics, the arts, and socialization with peers who have grown up in Boston.
“We’re not here babysitting kids; these have been instrumental times for these kids to mimic behaviors they will use in the classroom when school starts,” she said.
Inside the camp, which was held in a vacant Jamaica Plain school, students who are mostly from Mattapan and Dorchester were able to take a school bus via a BPS pilot program. Once there, experienced students sat side-by-side with them. It was about a 50-50 mix, said administrators. During the mornings, they focused on mathematics, English, and the sciences. In the afternoons, they focused on singing, musical instruments, dance, and drama with a group of college student volunteers who were running a drama program that enhanced vocabulary by encouraging kids to act out their meanings.
The attendance at the camp was outstanding, coordinators reported, noting that parents and students wanted to be with their peers this summer.
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Camp Coordinator Sara Charles said staff was phenomenal in helping existing and new students at the same time. She noted that providing one-on-one help for the most challenging students proved a winning formula, and said that the camp was quickly booked up this year as word spread among members of the newly arrived migrant community, many of whom had sought out adult services from IFSI’s office in Mattapan Square.
“Most of the growth this year is around the families just arriving from Chile and Haiti,” she noted. “Many of them came to Boston and found us and I’m glad they did – not just because of the education here at camp, but also for the support for whole families need.”
Support, for example, that played out inside a guitar classroom one afternoon in August as experienced fifth grade students and their new classmates, who had trekked across thousands of miles of South and Central America terrain en route to Mattapan, sang “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” together under the direction of a young adult camp counselor. All eyes twinkled when the counselor applauded the group for hitting all the right guitar chords.
Charles and Pamphile said if students were struggling in academics, they could perhaps succeed quicker in the arts. That, at least, would give them some confidence as they prepared for this new experience.
“With this program,” said Charles, “you give them that stepping-stone and foundation they need. At least they are on the bike and beginning to ride.”
Pamphile said the administrators at IFSI also saw real challenges in balancing successes and lagging issues that must be carefully navigated by school staff. It was their hope that the camp will have identified those students who need the most help before the first day of school, like those who can’t yet write their names.
“One thing that popped out to me is how many students appear…to have some developmental delays – not being able to pay attention or not being able to make eye contact,” said Pamphile. “We’ve had to prioritize them one on one…My biggest hope is that schools will acknowledge that – that school counselors will see they’re not just dealing with trauma, but there are developmental barriers, and they’ll be able to provide them with the supports that set them up for success.”
Beyond the school settings, many Haitian American politicians, residents and organizations note the utter silence in the public square on the story of the Haitian migrants who have relocated to neighborhoods like Mattapan and Dorchester. They have felt ignored in their push to assimilate and help the migrants – both by the government and the media. When stories are as complicated as this one, Pamphile said, they tend to get passed over for stories that seem easier to solve.
“That’s what I call poverty porn,” she said. “I think sometimes people like to focus on the sexy stories that are glaring, and you can throw money at it and create a semblance of a solution…I do think this situation is forgotten because the situation doesn’t seem so black and white. It’s more complicated and the media may not be able to figure out how to report on that.”
And being ignored usually means being underfunded. When stories aren’t told, donors are hard to find, and organizations like IFSI get overshadowed. Partnerships with BPS, Boston After School and Beyond and the City’s SuccessLink have helped, but Pamphile said she is left wondering about the possibilities.
“There is so much power in our grass-roots organizations,” she said. “So many people are doing this in a family-centered and community-centered way. It’s not just the big NGOs doing the work; it’s the small organizations like IFSI.”
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