English isn't the issue in Miami

The goal is fluency in languages

MIAMI — In Arizona and California, opponents of bilingual education fear that students aren’t learning English in school.

In Miami, English isn’t the issue.

Preserving Spanish is.

Residents are trying to make sure that all students get the opportunity to learn many languages in school — or at least keep the ones they already speak.

Miami, a business and cultural center for Spanish- and French-speaking countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, is the most bilingual city in the country. But the next generation lacks the language skills needed to conduct business there, forcing employers to look outside the United States for workers.

Arizona faces some of the same challenges. The North American Free Trade Agreement has boosted the state’s trade with Latin America, especially Mexico; trade rose 16 percent in the first nine months of 1999 compared with the same period a year earlier. Arizona’s ranking in export dollars is also climbing, to No. 16 in the nation compared with its population ranking of No. 20.

“Seeing as business is increasingly globalized, any time you have a work force that is bi-, tri- or multilingual, it only makes it better,” said Sally Spray, the Arizona Department of Commerce’s director of international trade and investment.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools are dealing with the issue by expanding programs to help all students become literate in at least two languages. The Florida Department of Education also is helping by setting up a center to study language education.

“That’s the first thing we want them to speak — English,” said Perla Tabares Hantman, a school board member and a leader in bilingual education expansion. “We have the problem that children come speaking Spanish, then soon after they only speak English.”

Residents don’t understand the politics of English for the Children, the successful California movement to cut back bilingual education that has spread to Arizona. The citizens’ initiative would force limited-English speakers in Arizona to master the language during one year of special English-only classes. Afterward, they would have to join regular classes.

In the Miami district — the nation’s fourth-largest school district at 55,000 students — educators don’t worry about limited-English speakers mastering their adopted language. Those students — one in six of the student population — learn to speak English fluently, on average, in three years.

“Politics, up to now, has stayed away from it, except to support it,” said Lourdes Rovira, executive director of the district’s bilingual/foreign language skills programs division.

The major push for multilingualism came in 1996 from the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce. A survey found that more than 95 percent of businesses thought a bilingual work force was important, but 25 percent thought English and Spanish skills were lacking. Another study found that bilingual employees make more money in Miami.

More recently, another study of 10 metropolitan areas found that bilingual workers in three cities earned higher salaries — an indication that bilingualism is an asset even outside the international hub of Miami, said Sandra Fradd, one of the study’s authors and University of Miami education professor.

For that reason, Fradd said, the region doesn’t view bilingual education as remedial but as vital for the economy.

It’s not that Miami residents don’t speak Spanish, explained Rosa Sugra?es, chairwoman of the chamber’s Hispanic business group. It’s that they speak what’s called “kitchen Spanish” — the Spanish spoken at home, Sugra?es said.

Spanish speakers often can’t write a memo or close a deal in Spanish, instead slipping into what’s known as “Spanglish.”

“If you’re talking to a customer in Argentina, it sounds stupid,” said Sugra?es, a native of Spain and president of a Miami-based international tile company.

Part of the emphasis on Spanish literacy stems from Miami’s distinct Hispanic population, mostly Cuban-Americans who as a group have a higher level of education, more money and more political clout than Hispanics elsewhere in the United States. Cuban-Americans also have retained their use of Spanish as they established their own businesses and communities.

Inevitable gap Despite all its efforts, Miami — like Tucson or any district with children raised in a language other than English — will always see a gap in performance, said Rovira, the bilingual program director. “You cannot have the same testing expectation for the child who came here two years ago as for a native speaker,” she said.

The Miami district has a long track record with bilingual education. For example, Coral Way Elementary School has a dual-language program for neighborhood pupils, and Carver Middle School offers an international magnet program with Spanish, German and French instruction.

Coral Way began the nation’s first bilingual program in 1963, as an experiment in teaching Cuban refugees. It inspired programs throughout the country.

Today, the ratio of time spent on English vs. Spanish is about 3-2 for the 1,400 mostly neighborhood pupils. About one-third are limited-English students.

Coral Way pupils are expected to perform equally well in both languages, learning from one teacher in English and another in Spanish, said Cecilia Martinez Langley, the lead teacher.

On a day in early November, pupils showed off their talents in both languages to a group from Florida International University that was setting up a campus laboratory school.

With just a few months of instruction, native Spanish speakers in kindergarten sang the months in English. A first-grader with long, blond hair and blue eyes described the continents in flawless Spanish. Fifth-graders showed off books about Michelangelo and the Renaissance in both languages.

Throughout the school, pupils wrote journals and science lessons, crafted stories and read tales in both languages.

Some Coral Way pupils are second-generation. The de Armas family moved into the neighborhood so the children could attend their father’s school, said Christine de Armas, mother of a Coral Way graduate and a first-grader.

“From my perspective, if you have the opportunity to teach a child in other languages, you should take that opportunity,” de Armas said.

Pupils come speaking more than Spanish and English. Fifth-grader Daisy Chu, 10, speaks Cantonese at home. The parents of fifth-grader Michaelson Joseph speak Creole and French.

Still, most limited-English students are Spanish-speakers, like Jose Betancourt, whose parents are from Honduras and Cuba.

“When I first started school, I was a little bit afraid,” said Jose, 10. “I didn’t know English and I thought, ?Oh my God.’ ”

But he picked up English quickly. “For some people, I think it’s hard. But for some people, if they have the guts to, they can learn to do it.”

All three of the children are enrolled in the International Studies program taught after school in Spanish by a teacher using the curriculum developed for students in Spain. They will have the chance to continue bilingual studies at Carver Middle School.

With agreements from the French and Spanish governments, and an understanding with Germany, teachers from those countries instruct the curricula from those countries. So most middle schoolers take half of their traditional subjects in English and the rest in a foreign language, said Principal Simine Heise.

On one day at Carver, a class that includes seven middle-schoolers who speak no Spanish at home discussed the rain forest in Spanish.

In another class, pupils learned about metaphor with songs in Spanish by Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias, following with a study of medieval and Renaissance philosophy through a Spanish poem.

With such high levels of foreign language instruction, eighth-graders regularly ace the advanced placement exams for college credit. Last year, 94 percent passed the Spanish, 72 percent the French test and 53 percent the German test.

Carver, though, accepts only pupils who qualify by taking International Studies classes in elementary school or by passing tests.

As part of its bilingual expansion, the Miami-Dade County district is putting more programs in traditional schools.

Miami Senior High School, the city’s oldest high school, is among 14 schools now offering bilingual academies for fluent Spanish speakers. Ninety Miami Senior students take half of their classes in Spanish and half in English.

Using opportunities

Students at Miami Senior are taking advantage of their city’s effort to encourage bilingualism. Cuban immigrant Reynier Lezcano, 16, said he wants to learn more languages to help him in his calling as a Catholic priest and medical doctor.

The sophomore thinks he would speak better English if more class time was spent on it.

“The first immigrants didn’t have Spanish classes and they learned English faster,” said Reynier, who moved to Miami at age 10. Having Spanish classes “helps you because it’s your language, but at the same time it takes longer to learn English.”

Norma Pe?ate started her U.S. education at Coral Way knowing only the words chicken, pen and pencil in English.

“To start something new is hard, but it wasn’t that hard for me,” said Norma, 16, who was born in Cuba and raised in Venezuela.

Now the high school junior is skilled in Spanish and English, and believes she has the tools to fulfill her goal of becoming an accountant.

“To be able to get a job,” Norma said, “you need to speak both languages fluently.”

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