Fabiola Santiago: We say sí to Spanish, but can’t agree on how to teach it

The Miami Herald, May 1, 2015

Who would have thought that in 21st-century multilingual Miami-Dade there would be a need to launch a campaign to push for better Spanish-language education in public schools?

Our pioneering bilingual programs, after all, have been studied, acclaimed and transplanted to other communities.

But “S.O.S. Save Our Spanish” seeks to raise awareness about the shortcomings of an elementary educational plan that was supposed to improve Spanish-language instruction in grades K-5 but has been a flop, according to Spanish teachers and some experts in bilingual education.

“Replacing programs to which all students had access with a program with limited enrollment results in lack of opportunities for all,” says Federico Justiniani, a member of the National Association of Cuban-American Educators. “We need to wake up our parents from their inertia and make them aware what’s going on in schools.”

Justiniani laments that, as a result of the phasing out of an old Spanish program and the requirements of the newer Extended Foreign Language program, teachers who used to teach Spanish-only are being asked to teach other subjects, and teachers who aren’t qualified to teach Spanish are being assigned to teach Spanish classes.

“Speaking Spanish does not equal being able to teach Spanish,” Justiniani said.

Spanish teachers, their supporters, and a cross-section of community organizations, including the NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens, will come together in a forum at the University of Miami’s Casa Bacardi on May 12 to address what they say is now a lack of access to Spanish instruction in public schools.

But Maria Izquierdo, Miami-Dade Schools’ chief of academics, told me Friday that administrators are owning up to the shortcomings of the EFL program (“extended” is quite the misnomer, say its foes) and are working to fix them.

“We are aware of the challenges and working on solutions,” she said.

New models will make Spanish language instruction available to more children and in more schools — and not just for Hispanic students but for all students, she said. Funding for new and modern teaching materials has been secured.

Not that it will be easy to accomplish.

Delivering the service is a complicated issue with all sorts of components — from funding to staffing to satisfying the needs of diverse schools. I would add that understanding the issue alone is a monumental chore. There are enough confusing acronyms and internal bureaucracy to send one running away from the subject.

But this is the essence: The old Spanish program for native speakers and for English speakers available in most schools is being slowly phased out after a parents’ advisory committee concluded that it wasn’t graduating the prolific and proficient bilingual speakers the marketplace demands.

One 30-minute lesson a day in Spanish was not cutting it for either the native Spanish speakers seeking a high level of proficiency or for the English speakers who wanted to become bilingual. “They wanted a more rigorous program,” Izquierdo said.

The advisory board recommended doubling that time by introducing the teaching in Spanish of content, for which Spanish teachers would need elementary school teaching certification. And so implementing this “choice” program has so many variations and requirements — and a diverse student body to address — that the result has been fewer kids taking Spanish. Add to this the pressure of teaching an age group that needs to master reading skills in English or they will fall behind the rest of their lives, and the results are not what anybody wanted.

Izquierdo says she will present improved models that will “revitalize and give more choices” for next year at a School Board committee meeting Wednesday. This issue merits a full televised board hearing with input from parents and educators.

They might hear what I’m thinking: Some Spanish is better than none. A bilingual expert I spoke to sent me research that shows learning an additional language helps with development in the other. We should strive to give our kids the best Spanish education our tax dollars can buy — but we can’t become paralyzed by the quest for perfection to the point that what was once a subject available to all is now there only for some who meet the rigorous and geographical location tests.

There’s one bit of good news is this hodge-podge of views and needs: This community has come together to embrace the shared value that South Florida needs to graduate the bilingual kids the local marketplace and global economy demand.

If there’s one subject that stirred passions in this community in the past, it was the subject of Spanish as Miami’s second language. Now that we’re on the same page about the need for our children to be proficient in the second-most spoken language not only in Miami but in the world, let’s get the job of teaching it done and chip away at the obstacles.

Teachers, parents, and administrators should be on the same side — our children’s.

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