In Miami, Bilingual Means Progress

MIAMI—“SIX or seven years ago,” said Ralph E. Robinette, director of bilingual and foreign-language programs for the Dade County, public schools. “if I had a call from a parent it was ‘Why is my kid in Spanish?’ Now if I get one, it’s ‘Why isn’t my kid in Spanish?”

Evolving out of necessity over the last 25 years, the language department of a school system that has sustained a heavy influx of Hispanic immigrants as well as others now invests millions of dollars annually in personnel, learning materials and facilities for developing the students’ bilingual skills. The result is a highly advanced and diversified system that can be tailored to fit the language needs of students at virtually any level of proficiency.

According to school officials, some 95,000 of the 222,000 students in the system are involved, some as early as the first grade, in studying, in addition to English, a foreign language at some level of intensity. In most cases the language is Spanish, but for students with other native tongues, who make up about 5 percent of the 95,000, there are similar language opportunities such as French and Creole for Haitians and Hebrew for Jewish students.

On one side, the school system’s programs expose English-speaking students to Spanish. At the other, the programs provide intensified daily instruction in English for those with low proficiency. These are supplemented by training in basic academic subjects such as math, science and social science in the native language while the student develops proficiency in English. About 25,000 students are involved in the latter program.

The impetus behind attention to language skills has been Dade County’s emergence as a heavily Hispanic area; 56 percent of the population of Miami, the Dade County seat, is Hispanic and 40 percent of the entire county is Hispanic. In the school system, 39 percent of the students are Hispanic, most of them from Cuba. Furthermore, Hispanics constitute the fastest-growing segment of the student body, while according to school board officials black enrollment has remained steady and Anglo-American white enrollment has been steadily shrinking.

The efforts here have not escaped controversy. The community has been debating for years whether the school system is moving too slowly in teaching English to those for whom it is a foreign language. Also, many students who have studied Spanish as a second language have complained about their low level of fluency in Spanish after having taken what courses are available in the Dade County schools.

The debate today, however, is much less charged than in past years, when many English-speaking residents seemed more intense in their resistance to bilingual education here because they feared it would fuel an effort to make Spanish the official second language of Dade County. The movement in Quebec to make French the official language there was often mentioned in discusions here about Spanish.

But today, according to Eduardo Pardon, vice president of the New World Campus of Dade County Community College, “Bilingualism in Miami is an economic issue, not an ethnic issue.” A more enlightened view of the value of Spanish, he asserted, is emerging here.

“Having a large community that is sophisticated in another language has had a tremendous economic impact,” Mr. Robinette said. “It has allowed Dade County to expand our horizons on the business front.”

Of the 95,000 students in bilingual and foreign language programs last school year, about 66,000 were elementary students considered by the school system to be proficient in English. About 38,000 of these spoke English as their first language and studied Spanish as a second language. About 16,000 others were Spanish-speaking children studying Spanish from an academic perspective. On the secondary level, there were 8,000 English-speaking students studying Spanish, 4,000 Spanish-speaking students also studying Spanish, and 6,000 Spanish-speaking students studying English.

The language program consists of both mandatory and elective components; also, teachers in a given student’s day may change depending on the level of proficiency in English that the student possesses.

Most of the high school students who study Spanish, for example, take it as an elective, resulting in one hour’s class study per day. At the elementary level, the elective time for Spanish can be as little as a half-hour a day. However, for students who know little English, up to two hours a day is spent in English instruction.

SOME 660 teachers participate in the “English for Speakers of Other Languages” programs. About half of them travel to two or even three schools to teach. Systemwide, the board of education spends approximately $17 million a year on its bilingual and foreign-language programs.

A school day for an elementary student with minimum proficiency in English might go this way: two hours of instruction in English from a teacher who may not be fluent in the child’s native language but is trained to teach English as a second language; one-half hour of study of the native language; up to 90 minutes of instruction in science, social studies and math in the native language; the rest of the day studying various subjects in English.

By the end of the school day, the elementary student with little or no proficiency in English may have been taught by as many as three teachers in English and Spanish, depending upon his needs. As a general rule, Spanish is not used for more than half the day’s schooling. In comparison, students who are considered fluent in English receive no more than a half hour’s study a day in Spanish. On the high school level, it is one hour.

Mr. Robinette echoes other school officials in acknowledging the complaints of non-Spanish-speaking students and parents desirous of learning the language. “English-speaking people who say the program doesn’t work are disappointed that their kids don’t learn as well in elementary grades,” said Mr. Robinette. “You can’t expect it at half an hour a day. If you want to become intellectually fluent you have to spend more money and time on it.”

The exceptions, he said, are a handful of elementary schools set up to offer students an entire bilingual-education program.

The prospects for expanding the bilingual programs are great, school officials say. The flood of refugees to south Florida in 1980 and 1981 swelled the ranks of students needing intensive English training, they said, adding that it takes two to three years for a student with little grasp of English to become proficient in it, based on the slow-immersion approach used here. Since that time there has been a steady stream of immigrants from other countries, particularly from Latin America.

When Maria Lazo came to this country 15 years ago from her native Cuba, she could hardly speak a sentence in English. Today, as a result of the Dade school system’s bilingual program, Mrs. Lazo, 30 years old, is an employee of the County and is raising her 4-year-old daughter, Michelle, to speak both Spanish and English. “It’s very good to be bilingual in this county,” said Mrs. Lazo. “You have more opportunities if you have two languages.”

Comments are closed.