The Miami Herald
Wed, July 14, 2004

Route to boost bilingual skills touted

Today, the School Board will consider a proposed public awareness campaign that targets the missing link in foreign language instruction in the middle schools.


When classes resume next month at North Miami Beach Senior High, ninth-grade Spanish teacher Rodolfo Carbajales says he will probably have to start over from hola, even though most of his students have had some language instruction in elementary school.

''There's no continuity because so few students have Spanish in middle school,'' he said. ``By the time they get to high school, they've either forgotten or lost their interest.''

Middle school is the missing link in producing bilingual, bi-literate graduates in Spanish and other languages, say local business owners and education officials. In an attempt to bridge the gap, a public-awareness campaign to boost foreign-language enrollment in middle and high schools is up for approval at today's Miami-Dade School Board meeting, which starts at 1 p.m.

If approved, the campaign would enlist corporate partners to help create and fund TV, radio and print ads that show the advantages of bi-literacy, says Joanne Urrutia, head of the schools' Division of Bilingual Education and World Languages. The start-up cost is about $3,000.

Even though many Miami-Dade residents speak both English and español, only 17 percent of middle-school students were enrolled in any foreign language class last school year. That's a steep drop-off from elementary school, where nearly 95 percent of the students receive some form of foreign-language education, which is part of the core curriculum.

''We're ashamed of these figures,'' said Urrutia. ``But if we don't talk about them, they'll never improve.''

Peter Roulhac, the school system's new chief development officer, said that being truly bilingual means having more than just conversational skills.


''It's understanding and conducting meetings in both languages,'' said Roulhac, who will be the district's chief liaison with the local business community. ``Until we are producing those young people, the reputation of the school system will not be what we want it to be.''

Schools are having great difficulty pushing foreign language in the middle schools, where students can choose their own schedules for the first time, Urrutia said.

''For students to be fully bilingual, they need instruction in those years,'' she said.

Neither the state nor the district requires students to take a foreign language. Yet more than a third of high-school students are enrolled in classes, partly because most universities require at least two years of foreign language, Urrutia said.

Educators say the problem with low enrollment in foreign language classes is not resources. The Miami-Dade school district ranks ninth in the country in state funding for bilingual education, according to the 2000 Census.

But those classes must compete with the myriad of electives such as band or cooking -- and often lose out.

The regimen of standardized tests mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind law also cuts into foreign-language instruction because students with poor scores often take extra classes in reading and math.

Such double-dosing squeezes out electives such as foreign language, said Mercedes Toural, the district's chief education officer. ``It's eating away at schedules so much that some children have no chance of taking any electives whatsoever.''

Last year, Urrutia's staff compared the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores of fourth- and fifth-graders at 16 schools. Students enrolled in dual-language programs, where some classes are taught in Spanish, outperformed students taking all-English courses on both reading and math tests.

''Language teachers across the country feel as though their classes are being forced out of the curriculum,'' said Reg White, president of the National Education Association. ``They feel pushed by testing, as if their passion for the subject is unrequited.''

Starved for a fully bi-literate workforce, the local business community is working with county schools to improve. The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce began a partnership with county school four years ago with the English and One More program that encouraged dual-language programs in schools. Urrutia hopes the chamber will work with her department again.


''We are a financial hub and a trade capital, and for the workforce here, with bi-literacy comes more success,'' said Rosa Sugranes, owner of Iberia Tile and a leader of the English Plus One initiative.

Jackie Garcia, president of the Shenandoah Middle School PTA, agrees. She grew up speaking Spanish at home, but it wasn't until her children enrolled in dual-language programs at Shenandoah that Garcia realized just speaking Spanish wasn't enough.

''I could hold conversations, but I never realized that I wasn't educated,'' said Garcia, an office manager.

After several years of reviewing homework with her two children, David 13, and Sarah,15, Garcia considers herself fully bi-literate and said that the ability to speak business-caliber Spanish has made her better at her job.

''One of the dangers in Miami is that we have so many kids who speak Spanish so well, but there are different kinds of Spanish you need,'' said Dr. Walter Secada, a professor at the University of Miami's School of Education. ``At the end of elementary school, you don't have skills adequate to jump to Spanish and develop literacy on the college level. You need something in between.''