On a recent Thursday morning, 20 elementary school students swiveled their hips to the rhythm of Celia Cruz’s most emblematic song.
“No hay que llorar…que la vida es un carnival,” the students belted, which means, “There’s no need to cry ... life is a carnival.” A few of the younger children were slightly out of breath as they struggled to keep up with their longer-legged classmates.
They salsa stepped forward in unison, shimmying their shoulders alongside one of their teachers, who wore a mustard-yellow T-shirt trumpeting the school’s bilingual program: “It’s Cool to be Dual!”
The students were participating in a three-week Spanish immersion class, designed to reinforce the bilingual instruction they receive during the school year. But they were not in Little Havana or Hialeah — they were at Lorah Park Elementary School, in the middle of Miami’s predominantly African-American Brownsville neighborhood.
“Usually it is the Hispanic kids who benefit from this sort of bilingual introduction to a new language,” said Migdania Vega, a retired school director and a consultant for the Miami-Dade school district’s bilingual program. “Living in this county, [African-American students] really are entitled to have the same tools” as their Hispanic peers, she said.
Although few of the students in Lorah Park’s summer program speak Spanish at home, their parents recognize the benefits of a bilingual education. “Because they live here in Miami, they are disadvantaged if they don’t speak Spanish as far as jobs and as far as anything,” Vega said. Parents have told Vega that the first question they are asked when applying for a job is whether they speak Spanish. “Even to operate a crane you go and apply and they ask, ‘Do you speak Spanish?’” she said.
This was the first year Lorah Park has offered the summer immersion course, although the school has been a dual language school since 2004. During the regular school year, all students receive 40 percent of their classroom instruction in Spanish. Teachers at Lorah Park asked the district to fund the new program to give students an opportunity to practice during the summer.
Thirty-five children ages 5 to 9 participated in the inaugural class, spending three hours a day speaking solely in Spanish. They learned new vocabulary and phrases, made arts and crafts, and, of course, sang Celia Cruz songs.
“You learn a language when you are immersed in it,” said Carmen Ramos, the lead teacher for the summer class and for the school’s bilingual program. “You have to be obligated to speak it.” She added that the students, most of whom are African-American, have improved quickly thanks to the extra summer instruction. “The Hispanic students have more of an accent than they do,” she said, laughing.
At a school where 98 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch because of their family’s income, supporters say the bilingual program has had a positive impact on academic performance.
Shirley Johnson, president of the NAACP’s Miami-Dade branch, said Lorah Park has outperformed comparable schools since it instituted a dual language program. While some of the “surrounding schools with the same socio-economic status” have gotten Fs, Lorah Park has not. The elementary school has received mainly Cs, Bs and “even an A” since it began the bilingual program 12 years ago, she said, referring to school ratings, which are determined by student performance on state tests, graduation rates and other factors.
Research is mixed, but some studies indicate that bilingual students score better on tests, and that the same skills used to learn a second language help children master other subjects as well.
But for Johnson, who serves as the education committee chair for the NAACP’s Florida State Conference, bilingual education is about more than just test scores. It’s about access to opportunities, and giving students a global perspective.
Johnson was first introduced to bilingual education in the early 1970s, when she was a teacher at Miami Gardens Elementary School. “I took a class in bilingual education and it was like a whole world opened up to me because I understood the culture,” she said. “We need everybody speaking a second and third language.”
The children in Lorah Park’s summer program appeared just as enthusiastic about the program as Johnson. When Ramos asked her students, in Spanish, if they remembered a tongue twister they had recently learned, a dozen eager hands shot up in the air, fingers wiggling with anticipation. Ramos called on one of the older students, who flawlessly recited a tongue twister about a hippopotamus.
“It’s the future of the global economy to be bilingual and bi-literate,” said Melba Brito, the administrative director of Miami-Dade’s bilingual education and world languages department. “The community is very much interested in bilingual education because of that.” Brito said the district has “embraced” Lorah Park’s summer initiative and hopes to expand the program, including to other schools, next year.
Lorah Park’s bilingual program has attracted students from other neighborhoods. For Velencia Ivory, giving her 6-year-old son Antonio the opportunity to learn Spanish was so important that she transferred him from their local Miami Gardens school to Lorah Park last year and enrolled him in the three-week class, which ended in July.
“It’s so diversified here and I think it will be a good look as far as him being a black male and knowing both languages,” she said. “He can get much further in life. I’m looking towards his future.”
Ivory said she encourages Antonio to play Spanish computer games and use Spanish language programs at home on his iPad. “I’m also going to take some more Spanish classes because I want to be fluent. I want to know every word,” Ivory said. “I’m interested in it and I’m trying to instill that in Antonio.”
Antonio also practices Spanish while running errands with his mom. He sometimes strikes up conversations at their neighborhood grocery store with Spanish-speaking patrons, Ivory said.
“I told him that’s a wonderful thing that you’re able to communicate with people in different languages,” she said.