Mountains beyond mountains

The challenge of getting our students to and through a college entrance exam reads like a rejected plot from "Planes, Trains and Automobiles."
Mitch Albom

Mitch Albom

January 19, 2022

Do you remember taking your SATs? Chances are you went with some fellow classmates. Maybe the school helped arrange the paperwork. A parent likely drove you to wherever the test was given. You showed your ID. You took the test. Your parent was waiting when you got out.

Something like that?

That process is considerably different for the kids at the have Have Faith Haiti Orphanage hoping to go to college. The test they need to overcome is called the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). It’s a difficult test if you didn’t grow up speaking English. Heck. It’s a difficult test if you DID grow up speaking English. I know. I’ve tried it. And I write for a living.

But these days in Haiti, the test itself is just part of the problem. We have seven kids currently ready to go to college next year, four young women, three young men. All of them have been taking a TOEFL class for the last two school years. To say it has been a challenge is like saying Haiti’s weather is sometimes warm.

The first huge hurdle came last year, when the man who was teaching the TOEFL class, an affable, always-smiling instructor named Vladamir “Phedre” Delinois, came down sick with a fever. He was taken to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with COVID-19.

He never came out.

His sudden death, at age 56, shook our orphanage from top to bottom. And the most affected were the kids in his TOEFL class, who had come to love his booming voice and his warm, teasingly loving approach. Working them through their grief was an enormous challenge.

Then we had to try and find another teacher capable of picking up the class.

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Mr. Phedre’s last TOEFL class. Edney, far right, is now a freshman in college.

This is Haiti

We were able to hire a pair of fine Haitian instructors, one named Rose, an older, elegant woman with an amazing educational resume, and a younger woman she suggested named Marie Claude. Together they tried to pick up the pieces from Mr. Phedre’s death and continue steering the kids forward.

Then came the challenge of physically taking the test. The TOEFL is only offered sporadically in Haiti, in a few select cities, and at a single location in Port-au-Prince. We tried to schedule it several times, only to learn the test was cancelled due to COVID concerns, or manifestations in the streets, or the threat of kidnapping from gangs.

I don’t remember having to deal with that with my SATs.

When we finally booked a date that wasn’t changed, we then had the challenge of identification. It’s not like our kids have driver‘s licenses or social security cards. We needed to get them passports. But the only way to get passports is to bring a parent to the offices to vouch for the child, or death certificate paperwork proving there is no parent.

Well. You can imagine the challenges here. In some cases, our kids have no parents. In most cases, there are no death certificates. One of our brightest and most promising students, a teenaged girl, has a mother living somewhere in the provinces, but we went months without being able to reach her. This is common. People move. Phone numbers change or are disconnected.

Finally, after exhaustive searching, someone was able to reach the mother. Which is when we found out she had no identification paperwork herself. Nothing to prove who she was. Without that, she could not come to the city and vouch for the passport. So we first had to arrange to get her registered with the government to establish her existence. All that before we could try and get a passport for her daughter.

We are still waiting.

Meanwhile, the daughter remains unable to take the TOEFL test. Any chance of her going to college come September has basically disappeared. This is Haiti.

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Happier testing times: 2018 and 2019 test takers celebrate their achievement

That old college try

On December 18th, one week before Christmas, we were able to take six of our kids to the TOEFL exam. Thanks to friends who have high end security, we were able to get them a safe ride back and forth. The kids were so brave. They’d never been to a testing center before. They were split up into different sections and could not sit near each other. The test itself was delayed by an hour, with no explanation given. And during the test, there was no one available in case of a problem.

One of our kids, Esterline, 17, could not submit the test when it was finished. She kept pressing the “submit” button on the computer, but nothing happened. The only other button was “cancel.” Without aid or guidance, she finally pressed that one.

Her entire test was cancelled. She never received a score.

The others fared better. Some did amazingly well. The colleges they were shooting for required a score of 79 or better. Two of our younger kids, Junie-Anna and Widley, both scored high the 90s. Unfortunately, both of them are going to have to wait a year to go to university, because we simply didn’t have the budget to send so many at one time.

Meanwhile, the four oldest students scored in the 70s. Good. But they could do better. They all expressed confidence they would improve greatly with a second chance, now that they’d seen how the testing center worked.

Unfortunately, we recently learned that all TOEFL tests in Port-au-Prince are canceled until April.

And our new TOEFL teacher suffered a kidnapping attempt and was shot in the hand. It was shocking. She is recovering, thank the Lord, but understandably, her participation and our classes had to come to a halt.

Dèyè mòn, gen mòn: Beyond mountains, there are mountains.

— Haitian proverb

What do you do? You improvise. You search. We discovered an alternative online test called the Duolingo English test that many colleges accept. Our kids began studying that one just before New Year’s. They worked hours every day, taking practice exams.

Finally, they were ready for the real thing. We set them up in separate rooms. We moved the small internet boxes close to them. They took the test. They pressed “upload.”

It started uploading at 2 percent an hour.

And 2 percent an hour.

It took two days. And finally, when the number reached “99 percent”, it flashed and started back over at zero.

None of the scores counted.

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Djouna works on her college essay.

I don’t remember my college entrance tests being this challenging. That’s because they weren’t. Mountains beyond mountains. The old Haitian proverb. I know our kids will find a way. We always do. But the word “test” has a whole different meaning in this hot and endlessly challenged country. And our kids, when they finally get their passing scores, will surely have earned them.

BIG NEWS: WE’VE MOVED!

With your help, we can move mountains

Support the continued building of a new home for Have Faith Haiti through the Mission to Move Fund

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