Miami-Dade moves to boost Spanish instruction in schools

Luciana Luquez reads in Spanish in the auditorium at Aventura Waterways K-8 School on May 14, 2015.
Luciana Luquez reads in Spanish in the auditorium at Aventura Waterways K-8 School on May 14, 2015. EL NUEVO HERALD

Mark Robson asked for a teacher conference when he became worried about his two sons’ grades in Spanish.

The problem: They were getting straight As at Highland Oaks Elementary.

“Their grades were too good and they didn’t know a lick a Spanish,” he said. “They knew their colors and they knew their numbers, but they didn’t know ‘Hello.’”

As parent demand for foreign language classes grows in Miami-Dade, two dominant issues have emerged: the quality of instruction and a lack of access for all students.

District officials hope to bring solutions in the new school year with a new graduate certificate program for teachers, a $4 million curriculum overhaul and a soon-to-be appointed task force.

“It means we’re addressing the issue,” said Mari Corugedo, a local director for the League of United Latin American Citizens and a Miami-Dade teacher. “Our kids are graduating not knowing a second language, and that’s putting them at a disadvantage.”

Spanish instruction was pushed into the spotlight when the district began phasing out traditional classes, which were treated a bit like electives, about two years ago. Parents complained their kids weren’t learning enough and wanted something more effective.

In place of twice-a-week classes, the district doubled the number of elementary schools with an extended foreign language program. In the EFL program, subjects like math and language arts are taught in Spanish every day.

But a new problem emerged. In a county touted as Latin America’s backyard, the school district struggled to find qualified Spanish teachers. The loss of language is not unique to Miami-Dade; in many immigrant communities, fluency fades with each generation.

Teachers who knew enough Spanish to get by socially were suddenly thrust into an academic setting — without the vocabulary and grammar skills needed in the classroom.

Not only are their language skills sometimes lacking, but elementary teachers in the EFL program don’t need to be certified to teach a foreign language. So they were being asked to teach a subject they had no formal training in.

“An elementary teacher is a generalist. They take a class in math or science but they do not concentrate in one area. So these teachers are not Spanish teachers,” said Beatriz Zarraluqui, a district director of bilingual education in Miami-Dade. “Those are the teachers who have the greatest difficulty.”

A new graduate certificate in partnership with Florida International University has been designed to address these issues. Four of the courses will be taught completely in Spanish to help teachers build fluency in the language. Teachers will also learn how to effectively teach a foreign language.

The program still has to be approved by the school board and FIU. Enrollment will probably start in the fall semester.

Most of the money dedicated to improving Spanish instruction in Miami-Dade will actually go toward buying new textbooks, prompting mixed reactions.

Miami-Dade’s proposed budget includes more than $4 million for a new curriculum tailored for the district. The new books feature “authentic” texts — stories originally written in Spanish — instead of just translations from English.

Assistant Superintendent Maria de Armas said original Spanish content brings an important cultural component to the new curriculum. With texts written by Hispanic authors, students can learn how countries assign different meanings to the same words and explore different cultural norms.

“Our goal is to be bilingual, bicultural,” de Armas said.

Morgan Polikoff , an assistant professor of education at University of Southern California who has studied the use of textbooks, said a new curriculum can be a “very low-cost intervention” to boost student grades.

“We have a good deal of research that materials affect teachers' instruction and, through that, student achievement,” he wrote in an email.

On the other hand, 20-year Spanish teacher Ingrid Robledo says she only uses her textbook about once a week.

“The textbook that I use is the newspaper, is the radio, is the TV. Everything and anything is a good excuse to expand their literacy,” said Robledo, who teaches at George Washington Carver Middle School. “It’s true books could make a difference, but I truly believe that it makes a difference the approach a teacher is using.”

Robledo says what she does works: almost all her eighth-grade students passed their Advanced Placement tests last school year. What’s important is teaching the language in context, and that takes professional development, she said.

To that end, the district is expanding its teacher training schedules and dedicating additional money for stipends so teachers can attend professional development sessions.

Corugedo, the league of Latin American citizens director and Miami-Dade teacher, called the move “very meaningful.”

Other issues of quality will be addressed through a task force that the district says will be named in the next month. Members are expected to sort through research and best practices to recommend a program that will meet parents’ expectations.

That includes finding a way to balance access for everyone who wants to take Spanish at a time when demand is high.

Gifted kids are shut out of the program. So are students who struggle academically — despite evidence that shows learning another language can boost school performance.

Then there are capacity issues, where some schools don’t have enough students to fill a classroom and justify paying for another teacher. Other schools have waiting lists for their more rigorous programs.

“The main concern, really, is how do we make it available to all students?” Corugedo said. “Now it’s only offered to a very select few, and that’s very worrisome.”

The task force will have its first meeting at the beginning of the school year.

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