Karen Toulon checks up on her children’s progress in Spanish every so often by dropping in a phrase from her own limited Spanish vocabulary.
But when the Miramar mother asks her children “Que color es” (What color is it?), she’s not happy with the reaction.
‘They look at me like, ‘What are you talking about?’ ” Toulon said. “I expected them to respond without thinking about it.” Toulon and other Miramar parents are demanding that Broward schools do a better job of teaching their children Spanish, to prepare them for a bilingual job market. School officials cringe at the investment of time and money, but business leaders say the parents are asking exactly the right questions.
“It’s very important,” said Frank Nero, president of Miami-Dade’s Beacon Council. “Because of who we are, and who we aspire to be — an international center — the more our students can know more than one language, it allows them to get a job and for us to participate in the global economy.”
Relatively few English-speaking South Florida schoolchildren get much more than a token education in Spanish, even in Miami-Dade County, where 57.3 percent of the population is Hispanic.
Hispanics accounted for 44 percent of Broward County’s growth in the 1990s and now make up 17 percent of the population, according to census figures. With that in mind, some say it’s time for the county to start looking seriously at developing bilingual students.
Concerned Citizens of Miramar Coalition, the new parent group, is asking in letters to city and county officials that the district spend as much on Spanish instruction as it does on English as a Second Language classes. They want their kids to become conversational in Spanish — not just to pick up a few words.
“I do not want my children to be at an economic disadvantage when they enter the work force,” said member Cecile Heron, who has two children, age 8 and 10. “If my children have the same education as someone else, why should they be at a disadvantage because they don’t speak another language?”
Thirty-seven of Broward’s 134 elementary schools offered Spanish last school year, said David Gonzalez, foreign language curriculum specialist for the school district.
At most of those schools, that meant a half-hour of Spanish instruction once every five to seven days — an amount that’s barely worthwhile, said Aurolyn Luykx, a linguistic anthropologist and post-doctoral research associate at the University of Miami.
“They’re not going to get conversational in any language at half an hour a week,” she said. ‘If the idea is that the kids are going to learn languages at a very young age, a half an hour a week is not taking advantage of the kids’ potential. They won’t make significant progress.”
At three Broward magnet schools, pupils have half an hour of daily language instruction. The Twins program, at Sea Castle and two other elementaries, is Broward’s most intense, with bilingual teachers using a mix of English and Spanish in all subjects. Toulon’s and Heron’s children were in that program, but Toulon said that when FCAT season rolled around, Spanish took a back seat.
Sam Gregg, South Area superintendent, acknowledged the situation, saying, “The FCAT doesn’t grade on conversational Spanish.”
The Miami-Dade School district started a three-year, $27 million effort to boost bilingualism — including having Spanish as a Second Language classes — in the late 1990s after a study by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and the Cuban American National Council found that many Miami-Dade high school graduates were not bilingual.
An extended foreign language program at select elementary schools immerses students in classes taught in English and a foreign language from kindergarten through fifth grade. Two Miami elementary schools, Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Coral Way, have a schoolwide immersion program that district leaders hope to expand to middle and high schools.
“This program has been growing constantly on an annual basis,” said Joanne Urrutia, who runs bilingual education programs for Miami-Dade schools. She said the program is expanding due to support from the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce.
“They’re the ones giving us a lot of support,” Urrutia said. “They’re saying your kids won’t get jobs if they’re not literate in another language.”
The 600 students at Carlos J. Finlay Elementary in Florida International University’s main campus in southwest Miami-Dade are taught most courses in a combination of Spanish and English. “Students should be able to compete with equal opportunity,” said Toni Bilbao, assistant dean for FIU’s college of education.
Broward school officials say they are sympathetic to the Miramar coalition and would love to offer more extensive language lessons.
“Right now, it’s an issue of funding,” said Bev Gallagher, the School Board member who represents southwest Broward. Experts agree that elementary school is the time to start language instruction. Luykx says younger children are better at learning languages, particularly pronunciation, because they’re more willing to make mistakes.
“There is also evidence that kids who learn two languages at an earlier age have an easier time learning a third or a fourth language later on,” Luykx said.
“Kids who study a second language gain much more awareness of how their own language works.”
HARD IN CLASSROOM
Julie Sugarman, a research assistant for the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C. pointed out that non-native speakers in the United States are inundated with English on television and in stores, which speeds learning. In the classroom, it’s much more difficult.
However, a native English speaker heavily immersed in Spanish can be writing and speaking Spanish at a fifth-grade level by the time he or she reaches the fifth grade, Sugarman said.
Hoping to accelerate her kids’ progress in Spanish, Toulon enrolled them in classes through Cooper City High’s community school last fall. She also bought a computer program. Heron hired a tutor.
Both mothers think it’s unfair that they have to supplement their kids’ lessons.
“Why should we have to pay extra for what our children should be learning in school?” Toulon said.
Herald staff writers Sonji Jacobs, Richard Brand and Tere Figueras contributed to this report.