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Teaching Spanish As A Required Language In One Florida School District

Wilson Sayre

To get into Florida colleges and universities, you have to have studied — or speak — a second language.

But — Florida students don’t have to take foreign language classes to graduate from high school.

So in a part of the state where most families already speak a second language, Sammy Mack tells us one school is leaning on parents to make sure their children stay bilingual.

Cece Estrada grew up in Immokalee. Her parents migrated with the crops. When they spoke to her in Spanish, she answered in English — and they didn’t really encourage her to speak Spanish.

"That’s why I encourage it because now I understand how important it is to have that second language and embrace it and be proud of it," she said.

Estrada is a social worker at Immokalee Community School, a charter school serving the largely Mexican and Guatemalan migrant community in this small, agricultural town in Central Florida.

The school is 94 percent Hispanic, and most of the parents speak Spanish at home.

It’s a Tuesday night at the school, and Estrade is standing in front a classroom full of parents, giving them a true or false quiz in Spanish.

"Kids who are bilingual have to work harder at math than kids who speak one language," she asks the parents in Spanish.

The answer? "FALSO. Being bilingual helps children resolve math problems."

Classes are in English, but every parent has signed a contract to speak Spanish with their kids for at least 30 minutes a day, most days of the week.

It’s an unusual effort to keep the students of Immokalee Community school from losing their Spanish — something that often happens between generations of immigrants.

Libby Doggett is a Deputy Assistant Secretary with the Federal Department of Education. She spoke in Miami earlier this fall — she wants to see kids learning a second language as early as preschool.

The school in Immokalee holds workshops to show parents how to make good on the Spanish pledge. Suggestions include cooking together in Spanish, discussing movies, sharing family traditions.

And this is a really important part of creating bilingual children, says Robert Linquanti, a bilingual education researcher and policy advisor with WestEd — a nonpartisan education think tank.

"Language is a social action. You don’t just speak, you speak for a reason, with a purpose, for a particular audience," he said.

He points to a mountain of research showing that kids benefit from speaking multiple languages.

They develop stronger critical thinking skills, they’re better multi-taskers, math comes easier.

"We should never see the home language a child brings to school as a problem that needs to be fixed. It’s a resource that can be built on."

In fact, says Linquanti, research shows that when parents with weak English skills don’t communicate in their native language, they can actually undermine their children’s language development.

One of the parents at the session, Angelina Velaszquez says the program has been good for her daughter.

"I see she’s getting ahead, little by little. I’m happy to see her prospering. Spanish and English are really important," she said.

At the end of the class, Cece Estrada, the social worker, reminds the parents why they took the pledge to speak Spanish to their kids.

We all want the best lives for our children, she says.

Encouraging them to speak two languages is one of the ways they’re already doing it.

Public radio. Public health. Public policy.