Learning In Two Languages

Dade schools pioneering bilingualism

Norma Penate’s morning class schedule consists of English and American History, both taught in English. By midday, the Miami High senior is in a classroom learning about economic trade between the United States and Mexico in her native language – Spanish.

Four decades after the first influx of Cuban refugees arrived in Miami and public school officials scrambled to find instructors to teach children who communicated solely in espanol, two-thirds of Miami-Dade County Public School’s 360,000 students are still being taught in two languages.

It’s a decision at which educators in other parts of the country have balked, but one educators here have found rewarding. Their belief: dual-language education creates better-prepared students in a country that is steadily becoming more bilingual.

“If you have another language, you can succeed,” said Norma, 17, who is among about 100 students enrolled in Miami High’s Academy for Excellence Bilingual Studies program. “Everyone should be bilingual; knowing more than one language puts you ahead.”

The program enrolls some of the brightest children at predominantly Hispanic Shenandoah Elementary. The students continue their language studies at Coral Way Middle before moving to Miami High.

Norma, an honors student, was born in Cuba but lived in Nicaragua before settling in the United States with her family 10 years ago.

She is among the 60 percent of Miami-Dade students who speak a primary language other than English. Hispanics are the wide majority, at more than 50 percent.

In Broward, student enrollment increased by 51 percent in the past decade, with more than half of the growth attributed to immigration, mostly from Spanish-speaking countries.

While the debate over bilingual education continues to rage in places like California and Arizona, school officials in Miami-Dade County, which leads the nation in teaching non-English speakers, are finding ways to expand programs here.

California voters two years ago soundly banned bilingual education. Arizona residents are being asked in a referendum in November to do the same. In Florida, bilingual programs are not a mandate. It is up to each school district to implement bilingual programs.

But Miami-Dade has long embraced the concept of teaching children in two languages.

“The thrust has always been to teach Spanish speakers English, but with the intent of using the whole language as a springboard to transfer literacy skills
– to transfer English but maintain Spanish,” said Lourdes Rovira, district director for bilingual programs.

Responding to the first influx of refugees following Fidel Castro’s 1959 rise to power in Cuba, school officials in the early 1960s began planning entirely bilingual schools.

Coral Way Elementary was the first to open, in 1963. At the time, half of its students were Hispanic. They were all subjected to a novel blend of Spanish and English instruction.

By the mid-1970s, eight bilingual elementaries had been opened, and basic-skills courses in Spanish were offered at 18 secondary schools. CONCEPT SPREAD

Since those early days, the concept has spread to more than 40 schools across the county where students take courses in two languages.

Across the nation, there are 261 dual-language schools in 23 states, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics, a Washington, D.C., research group. Most are elementaries that teach in Spanish and English, and many receive federal funding. All of them are modeled after programs started in Miami-Dade.

But change didn’t come easy.

“We were operating in uncharted waters,” remembers longtime School Board member G. Holmes Braddock, who in the 1960s helped shape the district’s bilingual education programs. “It was rocky because we didn’t have anything for the kids to advance to; there was no junior high or senior high for them to go to with the same kind of language instruction.” FIERCE RESISTANCE

Braddock said he faced fierce resistence from some in the community who balked at the idea of instituting language requirements for all students.

“A lot of people don’t believe in it,” Braddock said.

“They think you’re in America, you should learn to speak English. The Anglos raked me across the coals; they couldn’t stand it.”

Braddock, who unsuccessfully lobbied in 1974 to require that all students learn Spanish, said he was looking to the future when he asked for the change.

“I wanted all kids to come out speaking Spanish so they would have the opportunity, if they wanted to stay in Dade, to function across the community. My position then, and still now, is it was a survival skill.”

With the 1980 Mariel influx, Hispanics became the single largest group within the county’s schools. But Mariel was a precursor. In 1988 alone, unrest in Nicaragua brought 7,000 Hispanics to Miami-Dade. Thousands more non-English speakers would come from Haiti, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Honduras.

Today, a growing number of bilingual schools in Miami-Dade – the nation’s fourth-largest public school district – provides students the opportunity to study in Spanish and English from kindergarten through 12th grades. The programs are open to all children and are different from English as a Second Language – ESOL – classes, which are primarily taught in English and reserved for new immigrant students who have trouble with the language (the Broward district has 22,849 children in such programs; Dade has 54,662).

Almost all – 91 percent – of the county’s 168,000 elementary school students have opted to spend 21/2 hours a day studying Spanish or Creole. That number drops to 5 percent in middle schools and 10 percent in high schools.

The school system also offers these other learning options:

* Bilingual: Spanish is taught 40 percent of the day to children in five elementaries.

* Extended foreign language: The same 40 percent Spanish instruction – in subjects that include math, science and social studies – but limited to two classrooms per grade at eight elementary and middle schools.

* Magnet/international schools: Course work in Spanish, French or German in elementary, middle and high schools.

For all the immigrants who enroll in school each year, the largest group of Miami-Dade students who require instruction in English are native-born Americans who have been raised in Spanish-speaking households and enter school with little English.

About 60,000 are “limited English proficient” and take ESOL. Each year, 22,000 start school with limited English. Beginners spend two hours a day in ESOL classes; as they advance, class time is reduced to an hour. For typical students, two years suffice. After that, they are required to join mainstream school.

But what sets Dade apart is its success in implementing a broad language program that reaches all students.

This summer, Atlanta school officials sent recruiters to Miami to enlist Spanish-speaking teachers to help them gain similar results in Georgia.

“We have people from all over the country wanting to come here and see our programs, from Nebraska, Virginia, Iowa,” said Rovira, who oversees Miami-Dade’s bilingual education programs.

The movement is being backed by government officials who realize that a growing Hispanic population makes it that much more important for U.S.-born children to master Spanish. Education Secretary Richard W. Riley earlier this year endorsed expanding dual-language programs to 1,000 more schools within five years. The number has already been rising rapidly, increasing by about two-thirds since 1992, according to the linguistics center.

Rovira’s mother, Martha, was among the first hired by the school district to help children who came to Miami during Operation Pedro Pan, the secret exodus that brought thousands of unaccompanied Cuban youngsters to the United States.

“I understand the plight of these children, because I lived it,” said Rovira, 48, who began her career in county schools in 1973. “We came with one suitcase and very little money. My father sold magazines from door to door. My mother worked in refugee camps. I want for these children what someone did for me.”

Research shows bilingual education works when done properly. School officials point to Coral Way Elementary as the best example:Most of the school’s 1,350 students are poor enough to receive free lunches, and most of them are immigrants – it is 90 percent Hispanic. Yet, the school turns out some of the highest scores on standardized tests. Under Gov. Jeb Bush’s stringent new accountability system, Coral Way earned an A grade. Only 36 other Dade schools did so.

“For the skeptics who claim the instruction in Spanish will take away from academics, they need to take another look,” Rovira said.

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