MIAMI—At Coral Way Elementary, the school days unfold like a page ripped from Norman Rockwell’s sketchbook. Uniformed youngsters march in single file down the hallways, attending “citizenship day,” reading the tall tales of Johnny Appleseed and holding mock elections.
Yet Coral Way, the first and perhaps best-known bilingual school in the nation, provides the kind of controversial education that Republican presidential hopeful Robert J. Dole (Kan.) recently attacked as promoting “ethnic separatism.” The pupils at Coral Way learn English and Spanish in equal measure from kindergarten to fifth grade.
In a speech earlier this month before the American Legion in Indianapolis, Dole, the Senate majority leader, said schools should provide language classes for immigrant children, “as long as their purpose is the teaching of English. . . . But we must stop the practice of multilingual education as a means of instilling ethnic pride or as a therapy for low self-esteem or out of elitist guilt over a culture built on the traditions of the West.”
But here in one of the most densely immigrant communities in America, most parents, teachers and students say Dole is wrong — wrong because most students here and in other immigrant cities are, in fact, quickly taught English even if they are encouraged to maintain their own native languages.
And wrong, they say, because bilingual education is producing citizens best able to excel in the modern, multilingual, post-NAFTA world.
“What is wrong with learning more than one language?” asked Coral Way Principal Migdania Vega in a manner that suggests she believes Dole did not do his homework. “What is wrong with preparing students for the future? What is wrong with self-esteem?”
The issue of bilingual education remains an emotional topic for many Americans, who feel the country not only is being overwhelmed with immigrants but also that somehow the new arrivals in this latest generation of immigrants are failing to become “real Americans.” The United States is in danger, critics of bilingualism argue, of becoming a Balkanized Tower of Babel. And some school districts have been accused of trapping students in their native languages for years, condemning them to “linguistic prisons.”
Dole’s campaign press spokesman, Nelson Warfield, said the senator was concerned about students languishing in foreign language programs and not being pushed into English, kept there by “a liberal education establishment.”
What Dole and Congress decide is important to local school systems like Miami’s Dade County. Last year, Congress appropriated about $ 195 million to support bilingual programs. Next year, however, if the numbers approved by the House are supported by the Senate, federal expenditures will be reduced to $ 53 million.
Dade County, where more than half the citizens speak a language other than English at home, has been a lightning rod in the debate. In the 1980s, residents approved an “English-only” requirement for local government. But the measure was overturned two years ago, when the county commission declared it would accept Spanish and Haitian Creole as well.
Still, the issue simmers. “I’m not an educator but I do have sound common sense and we have been able to solve this problem over the centuries . . . by the obvious route: sink or swim,” said Mike Thompson, past chairman of Florida Conservative Union and outspoken critic of bilingual education.
By “sink or swim,” Thompson is referring to the most common way immigrant students in the United States are taught English, through immersion in the language with little or no help in their native tongues. It is a method that Dade County’s public schools, and hundreds more around the country, have rejected.
Instead, Dade teaches most of its English-deficient students (about 15 percent of its total) in a “transitional” bilingual program, meaning that as they are taught English, they are also instructed for an hour and 15 minutes a day in their native language.
But at Coral Way and other special schools, the program is completely bilingual. The mostly Hispanic, largely immigrant students split their days learning in English and Spanish and their test scores and English proficiency are equal or better than their peers’.
Dade County educators vehemently disagree with critics like Dole and Thompson.
“What these politicians do not understand is that learning another language does not mean not learning English,” said Maria Miranda, Coral Way’s lead teacher. “In fact, I believe that learning a native language makes learning English easier.”
Coral Way students say that among themselves they like to speak English, even those recent arrivals who are still wobbly in the language. But they want to keep their Spanish too. At Julie Puentes’ class here, the third-graders were asked which language they preferred.
“ENGLISH!” they screamed.
In the immigrant communities here, bilingual education largely has been embraced as the best, fastest and most painless way to transform students who know not a word of English into proficient speakers of the language.
Many educators in Miami said it seemed as though Dole believed there were public schools in America keeping children from learning English, that radical Latino separatists were somehow forcing children to speak Spanish.
“I believe that Senator Dole is misinformed. The goal of every bilingual program is to teach English,” said Rosa Castro Fineberg, a Dade County School Board member and associate professor of education at Florida International University here. “There are lots of success stories and Dade County is one of them.”
The average time spent in the bilingual programs here is 2.7 years. Kindergartners learn the quickest. A recent immigrant with no knowledge of English, who may not even read or write in Spanish, takes the longest.
At classes at Coral Way recently, students were busy reading Johnny Appleseed in English, but writing “apple stories” in English and Spanish. The children were using Johnny Appleseed not only for reading but also to learn vocabulary and geography in both languages.
One teacher said the children wanted to know where Aspen, Colo., was because they had all seen the movie “Dumb and Dumber,” which takes place there.
“They’re immersed in English and American culture,” third grade teacher Puentes said. “They can’t get enough of it.”
In third and fifth grade classes filled with students who started school with little knowledge of English, a visiting reporter asking questions received enthusiastic and proficient responses in English or Spanish.
No one is really sure if bilingual programs work better than the sink-or-swim approach. Dade County’s researchers say comparisons among different schools are almost impossible. But school officials believe a transitional approach is the most cost effective, efficient and humane.
In the late 1980s, David Ramirez of California State University in Long Beach completed perhaps the largest study, comparing the different methods used to transform non-English speaking students into English proficient ones.
The study was hampered by all the problems attendant in comparing test scores and IQs in rich and poor schools. But Education Prof. Kenji Hakuta of Stanford University, who reviewed it with a panel of statisticians for the National Academy of Sciences, said his group generally supported the study’s conclusions: That children in transitional and maintenance bilingual programs were doing better at learning English than students in English-only immersion programs.
“The differences were small, but statistically reliable. And in education, all effects are small,” Hakuta said. “It appeared that using native languages doesn’t get in the way of learning English.”
Dole supporters in the conservative Cuban community, which values bilingualism, were surprised by the senator’s speech. It put Miami’s Cuban American representatives in Congress in an awkward position.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) told the Miami Herald that she dropped her morning cup of coffee and gulped when she read Dole’s remarks. “He gave the audience the idea that there are actual courses out there that don’t want the students to learn English. That’s not happening,” she said.
An immigrant herself from Cuba, Ros-Lehtinen was put into a sink-or-swim English only school. “I sunk,” she told the Herald.
Coral Way Principal Vega invited Dole to see her school.
“This is a fact, we’re not making it up: Students who feel better about themselves learn better,” she said. “And we’re getting kids ready for the future, for the 21st century world. . . . Bob Dole should come visit us.”