To get into Florida colleges and universities you have to have studied — or be able to 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, Immokalee Community School is leaning on parents to make sure their children stay bilingual. As a condition of their children attending the school, 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.
“All the Spanish I’ve learned I’ve had to learn through school, through work,” says Cece Estrada, a social worker at the school. She grew up in Immokalee. Her family migrated with the crops. When they spoke to her in Spanish, she answered in English — and she didn’t grow up bilingual.
Immokalee Community School is an RCMA charter school serving the largely Mexican and Central American migrant communities in this small, agricultural town in Central Florida. The school is 94 percent Hispanic, and most of the parents speak Spanish at home. “That’s why I encourage it, because now I understand how important it is to be able to have that second language and just be able to embrace it and be proud of it,” says Estrada.
“We should never see the home language that a student brings to the classroom as some kind of problem that needs to be fixed,” says Robert Linquanti, a researcher and policy advisor with WestEd. “It’s a resource that can be built on.”
Linquanti points out there’s a lot of research showing that speaking more than one language is associated with all sorts of benefits—better multitasking skills, more developed critical thinking, stronger math skills.
Florida has a history of pioneering dual language education. Coral Way Elementary School in Miami was the first school in the United States to offer bilingual education in 1963. WLRN's Trina Sargalski profiled the school 50 years after its first dual language class:
“It was supposed to be a temporary curriculum to help Cuban students retain their language and culture, while people waited for the Castro regime to fall.
Today, the school, which has since expanded to the eighth grade, continues to thrive. Coral Way's elementary students spend about 60 percent of the day learning in English and 40 percent learning in Spanish.”
The movement to encourage bilingual children is also getting attention at the federal level.
“It is going to be a priority for me,” says Libby Doggett, deputy assistant secretary for policy and early learning at the U.S. Department of Education. When she spoke earlier this fall at a conference on Hispanic early learning issues in Miami, she told a crowd that she’d like to see more bilingual support as early as preschool.
“I’ve seen the research. It’s clear: We are losing an asset these children have,” says Doggett.