Miami schools aim to preserve bilingual courses Fluency in more than one language is 'business opportunity for students'

May 26, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

MIAMI -- While California debates whether to stop teaching schoolchildren in two languages, the school system in this city at the crossroads of the Americas is expanding bilingual education under the argument that students will need to speak, read and write in English and Spanish when they reach the business world.

Here in Miami, there was little protest and much praise when the school board endorsed a plan this year to increase bilingual teaching for all students -- not just those with limited English skills -- from kindergarten through 12th grade.

The decision was seen as natural for a metropolis where the top-rated television station broadcasts in Spanish, the top-ranked newspaper publishes a separate Spanish daily edition, many top civic leaders speak effortless Spanish and Latinos have become the majority.

Other school districts nationwide have come to similar conclusions, as "two-way" bilingual programs -- which immerse students in English and another language -- have grown in popularity. There are at least 200 such programs in 20 states, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington. They are in cities such as New York, Chicago, Houston and San Jose, Calif.

Their growth appears to be limited only by demographics (mixing students who speak different languages is ideal), by the supply of bilingual teachers (often scarce) and by money (always a concern).

Donna Christian, the center's director, said the two-way approach, also known as "dual immersion," has become popular in part because it avoids the stigma, negative press and controversy that often follow other forms of bilingual education.

Nowhere is the controversy more intense than in California, where a vote on an anti-bilingual education initiative, Proposition 227, will take place June 2. The initiative, ahead by 63 percent to 23 percent among likely voters in a new Los Angeles Times poll, would end most bilingual programs in California and give students with limited English skills about one year of special English classes.

How California votes on the measure could have nationwide repercussions because the state has more students with limited English skills -- 1.4 million -- than any other. About 30 percent of them are in formal bilingual programs, including some two-way programs. But the more common approach in California is "transitional" bilingual education, in which students often spend more time being taught in their native language than in English during their first school years. Educators in Miami are baffled by the cultural and political firefight.

"We view it here differently than they do in California," said Miami school board member Perla Tabares Hantman. "We see it as a business opportunity for students."

Noting that their region's trade with Latin America amounts to billions of dollars a year, business leaders say Miami cannot afford to do without bilingual education.

"I don't give a hoot about the political aspects of it," said James F. Partridge, chief of Latin American and Caribbean operations for Visa International, a branch of the credit card company. "To me, that's a lot of garbage. I'm interested in the financial well-being of this community. We need bilingual people to survive."

The pro-bilingual movement in the 340,000-student Dade County Public Schools, the nation's fourth-largest district, highlights several issues often overlooked in the Proposition 227 debate.

In California, bilingual education is usually seen as a program just for students with limited English skills. But here, bilingual education is sold as a program for everyone. In California, many people assume that the children of immigrants can learn their native language from family while studying only English at school. Here, many people have concluded that native language skills erode without help from schools.

Pub Date: 5/26/98

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