On a Friday morning, a few weeks before the start of the year 2000, students from different parts of the world surrounded the round-table desk at the principal’s office at Miami Beach High School.
“Argentinians move to Miami Beach because there are many Latin Americans here and it’s very comfortable,” said Franco Cipullo, 14, who arrived with his family from Argentina four months ago and was helping his cousin, Guido Ghuselli, 13, become familiar with the school.
This was Guido’s first day of classes in the United States.
“People come, of course, because of the opportunities, a better life,” said Paula Ortega, 16, who moved to Miami Beach with her mother and younger brother 10 months ago from Ecuador. “It’s hard work. [My mother’s] a waitress and she works every day. It’s tough, but there’s a lot of people who speak your language here. That makes it easier.”
Years ago, the students at Beach High, like the students throughout the county, were predominantly white.
In 1969, 57 percent of Dade County’s students were non-Hispanic white, 19 percent were Hispanic, and 24 percent were black. Today, Hispanics make up more than 53 percent of the student population and non-Hispanic whites just 12 percent.
The change in Broward has been similar, although it has occurred over a shorter period and non-Hispanic whites remain the largest group. In the 1987-88 school year, non-Hispanic whites were more than 63 percent of the student population, and Hispanics were just under 7 percent. By 1997-98, the percentage of Hispanic students had more than doubled, to 15 percent, and non-Hispanic whites were at 46 percent.
Back in 1969, Miami Beach High catered to the predominantly white, Jewish and college-bound students who made up the majority. Today, the school offers a school-to-work program, bilingual education classes, an alternative education program, and a gifted program. FREE MEDICAL SERVICE It also offers students free medical service and their parents help with gaining access to legal advocacy.
The school is a good example of how wave upon wave of immigration throughout the county has changed the way schooling is being done to meet the needs of students.
“What we’re doing is dealing with the change in population of the county,” said Evelyn Vieta Robinson, who graduated from Beach High as a Cuban exile in 1964 and now heads its department for testing and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). “It is really a change in the public schools not just here at Beach High.”
Hispanics became the majority in both the county and at Beach High in the 1980s, when Cuban refugees came to South Florida during the Mariel crisis.
And now, the majority of the students in the county and at the high school, located in the middle of the Beach at 2231 Prairie Ave., speak a language other than English at home.
“We know when there’s political strife somewhere in the world just by seeing who arrives at the school to sign up for classes in the morning,” longtime Principal William Renuart said.
County-wide, more than 200,000 students, or about 59 percent of all public school students speak a language other than English at home. For about 175,000 of those students, that language is Spanish. 24 LANGUAGES More than three-fourths of the students at Beach High speak one of 24 languages other than English at home, including Spanish, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, Ukranian, German, Bantu and Italian.
Hispanic students overtook white students as the majority at the high school during the 1984-1985 school year. In one year, the number of Hispanic students had jumped from 800 to 934, making up 42 percent of the student population. Hispanics made up 40 percent of the county’s public school students at the time.
“When the population shifted into a Hispanic majority, the school had an identity crisis,” said Terry Kurpius, who has taught science at Miami Beach High School since 1971. “There was no Beach High identity from 1975 until the late 1980s. We had to do something differently, but we didn’t know what it was and we had to begin reworking the curriculum.”
Today, the school’s 2,750 students are 56 percent Hispanic, 28 percent mixed ethnicity or Asian or American Indian, 23 percent black and 20 percent white. CHANGING HABITS In ways set on paper and in other more subtle habits, the staff started changing the way things were done at Beach High.
First, it offered more English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and bilingual content curriculum classes. Then it did a total overhaul.
Today, the school’s curriculum is focused around programs designed to help students decide upon a career track or a college preparatory track, rather than remain singularly focused on college prep.
It has a regular gifted program and a fledgling gifted program for students who speak English as a second language.
“The high school, like the county, has had to become more sophisticated in how we work with these students,” said Vieta Robinson. “We don’t make assumptions about a student’s intelligence, based on whether he or she can speak English or not. In the past, that wasn’t always true.”
The school has an ESOL program with 440 students. It also has an alternative school program with 350 students. County-wide, 145,821 students were enrolled last year in either an ESOL program or a Spanish bilingual program. LANGUAGE TESTING Since the start of the school year, the ESOL department tested the English proficiency of about 140 immigrants for placement in classes at the school.
This school year, the school system enrolled about 7,000 additional students. Superintendent Roger Cuevas said the school system anticipates growing by 130,000 students in the next 10 years.
Many of them, he said, will be immigrants. And many of them will not have medical insurance and financial stability.
Like 27 other schools in the county, Miami Beach High School has received outside grants and in-kind services to help the growing numbers of working-class or undocumented students access medical, dental, social and counseling services.
A pink portable building sitting near the outdoor basketball courts and the physical education field houses a clinic with two examination rooms, a dentist’s exam room and an office for a social worker – staffed by the Stanley C. Myers Health Centers. RESOURCES On the other end by the greenhouse, a gray portable building houses parent volunteers and the social workers from AYUDA Inc. The organization refers students and parents to community resources if they need help finding jobs, fighting an eviction or other advocacy.
“I know that some people will say that this is not the responsibility of the schools, that we should only be taking care of the academics,” Cruz said.
“But if no one else is going to take care of these things, what can you do?” Cruz said. “If a student’s family is going to be evicted, if they can’t find medical care because they don’t have documentation, our school has taken the stance that whatever we can do to help the kids, we do it.”
Bruce Singer, class of 1969, reflected on the Miami Beach High of his youth and what the future holds. Singer is the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce chief executive officer and the Beach High alumni association co-chairman.
“Back then, everyone belonged to a social club and today, half of these kids work,” Singer said. “Everything is school to work, find these kids jobs, get them internships. To go to school was social when I was a student. To go to school today is work.” MORE OF THE SAME The Beach High and the Miami-Dade County Public Schools of the future, he said, will likely be more of the same.
“The school system has to change to reflect the needs of the business community,” Singer said. “If the community is becoming more high-tech, tourist-oriented and bio-medical, the training has to reflect the job opportunities.”
Singer admits that the shift in focus from an exclusively college-preparatory program to a school-to-work and full-services program has caused some of the more affluent parents to send their children to private or religious schools.
But those who stay do so because they believe that immigrants in the school systems help their students learn about the world, said Parent Teacher Association President Anita Grossman.
Throughout the county, more than 64,500 students are studying Spanish as a second language. At this school, more than 330 students are learning the language.
“The public school had to change to serve the kids that are there now,” said Grossman, who graduated from Beach High in 1969 and whose son, Ethan, is a junior at Beach High. “I think the public school helps students navigate the world as it is, not as their parents would like it to be. They have to get along with everybody. They can learn to do that at the high school.”
Herald database editor Tim Henderson also contributed to this story.