When Maria Paradelo Acosta was a principal at Vineland Elementary in South Miami-Dade in the 1990s, she had a collage in her office that featured cover shots of James Bond actor Sean Connery.
Acosta wasn’t a sleuth like cinema’s 007. But she, too, was always seeking. Acosta’s mission was bilingual education in South Florida. For her students, many the children of immigrants, and for her own three children, education was paramount. She felt everyone was better armed if they honored their culture, kept their language alive and graceful, while doing the same with English.
Acosta, who worked in the Miami-Dade school system for more than 30 years as a teacher and principal, died Sept. 30 after a four-year battle with cancer. She was 68.
Her influence in promoting bilingual education and its intellectual effects is one of her lasting gifts, says special education specialist Maggie Marrero-Neville.
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“Students who know more than one language do better in math and science and so many areas of life,” Marrero-Neville said. “She strongly believed that and pushed administrators to think like her. She was an advocate for this process with the higher-ups in the school system — sometimes not to their liking.”
She really felt that education was extremely important for any child to grow and to be able to take care of themselves. My sisters and I are a testament to that.
Adrya Acosta on her mother, educator Maria Paradelo Acosta
Acosta created the Feria Olé, a nonprofit cultural event presented annually by the American Hispanic Educators Association of Miami-Dade County. Feria Olé develops contests in writing, poetry and drama for students from prekindergarten to sixth grade to promote the retention and enrichment of the Spanish language.
At Gratigny Elementary in the 1980s, as assistant principal, she created Extended Spanish, specifically for Hispanics in first and second grade. The Spanish curriculum program used cultural songs and tales.
“By the time Hispanics get to fourth grade, they don’t know the vocabulary dealing with science or social studies. Their Spanish kind of stops growing because they don’t ever get that kind of instruction,” Acosta told the Miami Herald in 1989. “Everything comes together. You can’t be bilingual without being bicultural. Just speaking the language alone doesn’t make you bicultural.”
At Vineland Elementary in South Miami-Dade, as principal, she was known for her approachability and attention to detail.
“She was a wonderful principal and great for the school. The students loved her,” said parent Woody Graber, whose three children went to Vineland in the 1990s. “She helped turn the whole thing around. She got air-conditioning in the auditorium-lunchroom and money for the aides. She didn’t set up walls between her and the children. She would go out into the children. She was one of the good ones.”
Later, at Emerson Elementary in Westchester, she pushed the school into adopting a bilingual program, patterned after that of Coral Way Elementary.
“She brought it to her school and made it a board mandate. That was very hard. She had to really push,” said Migdania Vega, a retired school director and a consultant for the Miami-Dade school district’s bilingual program. Vega was principal at Coral Way at the time. “She was a wonderful person, one of my best friends … and instrumental in a lot of activities to promote the Spanish language.”
Born in Santiago de Cuba on June 4, 1948, Acosta came to Miami when she was 13. She earned a work-scholarship to Quebec, Canada, where she learned English and French in high school. She earned a degree in education at the University of Miami.
“She really felt as an immigrant that it was very important that children were able to grow and succeed in life with all the right tools,” her daughter Adrya Acosta said. “She wanted to give that helping hand.”
Acosta is survived by her daughters Adrya, Elany Acosta Mena and Alyna Maria Acosta, her brother Ignacio Paradelo and grandchildren Mateo and Gabriela Jaramillo.
A wake will be from 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Sunday at Caballero Rivero Funeral Home South, 11655 SW 117th Ave., Miami. A Mass will be at 11 a.m. Monday at Saint Catherine of Siena Catholic Church, 9200 SW 107th Ave., Miami. Memorial donations can be made to the Maria Acosta College Fund in care of LULAC, 15625 SW 42nd Terr., Miami, Florida 33185.