Haitian Creole, which grew out of a mix of 18th-century French and West African languages, is the nation's lingua franca, but it wasn't until 1961 that it joined French as one of the country's two official tongues.
President Michel Martelly and other government officials switch between Creole and French in public settings, depending on whether the audience is Haitian or foreign, and many speak English and Spanish fluently from years of living abroad. More English than French can be heard on the streets of the capital as Haitian teens increasingly listen to artists popular in the U.S. such as Rihanna, Justin Bieber and Lil Wayne.
But French remains the language of affluence and privilege, employed in polite society and government communiques and openly spoken in the upscale supermarkets selling brie and baguettes in the mountains high above the capital's shanties. Although used by Haitians of all social strata, Creole is seen by some as the language of the impoverished masses.
As a result, Haitian parents are often all too willing to let their children stumble in their coursework to "learn" a language that even their teachers barely speak. Children whose parents can afford tuition typically spend the first three years of primary school being taught in Creole, then move to French for the remaining years. Students often learn little, and few pass their national exams.
President Michel Martelly campaigned on promises to improve Haiti's school system, and the government says it has paid tuition at private and public schools for more than a million students though some believe the number may be lower.
Some education officials, however, are reluctant to let go of French-centered instruction.
The government has run workshops helping teachers better understand French, with some officials saying French instruction is necessary because few Creole textbooks exist.
"French remains a language that is very symbolic for Haitians," said Pierre Michel Laguerre, an Education Ministry consultant who oversees the school system's curriculum. "There is a history with that language. We have many of our authors who have won prestigious literary prizes in the Francophone world. We cannot leave French behind."
Creole advocates say that there's no shortage of Creole-language books and point to publishing houses such as Educa Vision, Inc. in Florida, which produce such materials. But they acknowledge that shipping the materials to Haiti is expensive and goods are often held up in customs.
The Louverture Cleary school, which was founded by St. Joseph Parish in Providence, Rhode Island, has a history of success in the classroom.
It serves smart children from families with modest means and says it has notched a 98 percent rate of students passing the national high school exam, compared to the countrywide average of 30 percent.
A challenge painted on a wall at the school appears not in the customary French but in Creole: "Nou pare poun rebate ayiti, e ou?" — "We're ready to rebuild Haiti, are you?"
Jeff Thomas says he is. The 18-year-old sees his new linguistic skills as more than a path to a career as a computer programmer.
"If we meet a foreigner ... in order to help him we should speak English to understand what he's saying," Thomas said in English, with a heavy accent.
Moynihan emphasizes that Louverture Cleary is only one possible model for the rest of Haiti's schools and that it follows Ministry of Education guidelines. Unlike most secondary schools, the children have already mastered written and spoken Creole, some of them in the school's morning day care program.
"What is beautiful about language at Louverture Cleary is that we know it's a bridge," Moynihan said. "It's a bridge for communicating."
Associated Press reporter Evens Sanon and videographer Pierre-Richard Luxama contributed to this report.
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