The first English/Spanish bilingual education program in the country started at Miami's Coral Way Elementary in 1963. 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% of the day learning in English and 40% learning in Spanish.
In this "dual-immersion" program, students learn in two languages throughout the day--whether they are classes in reading, social studies or math.
Richard Ruiz, professor of language, reading and culture at the University of Arizona, has been working on an oral history project about the early days of the bilingual program at Coral Way.
Ruiz notes that while we know the Coral Way program has been successful, there's a lack of documentation about how the program actually worked in the early '60s. As the first generation of teachers and students from Coral Way grows older, that information might just fade away.
Ruiz and Bess de Farber, a colleague and Coral Way alum, traveled to Miami from Arizona in 2008. They collected oral histories, photographs and documents from current and former Coral Way teachers, assistants and students.
Ruiz, who has studied bilingual education for decades, says that other dual-immersion language programs like Coral Way exist but are rare.
"Coral Way has always had a very experienced and proficient teaching corps," he says, explaining that teachers at Coral Way are masters of their language of instruction, whether it be English or Spanish, as well as very proficient in the other subjects they teach.
One of the teachers Ruiz interviewed, Josefina Sanchez-Pando, helped start the program at Coral Way in the early '60s. Sanchez-Pando and many of her Cuban colleagues had been professors and educators back home.
At Coral Way Elementary, Sanchez-Pando had her own "pod" in a large multipurpose room. It was a giant, sometimes cacophonous place, where multiple teachers taught their classes. While dealing with her own transition to a new home, she helped her Spanish-speaking students get adjusted.
As Sanchez-Pando recounts, children from Cuba were flowing into the Dade County school system in the early '60s. Many of these children's parents sent them alone to Miami (at least temporarily as part of Operation Peter Pan) to protect them from Communist indoctrination in Cuba.
When they first arrived, Sanchez-Pando says, they "did not like the food, hated the environment, were lonely or sad and were afraid."
She recalls field trips she would take some evenings with the children to Key Biscayne:
"We would all bring a big, big towel, sit on the sand and look up at the stars and study the constellations...[I would tell them] 'And we can see this in this position here, but in Cuba you would see it in that other position. Now, if you write Mommy in your next letter, that three weeks from today we’re going to be here, lying on the sand, looking at the constellations--if they do the same thing over there, we could talk. We could look at the stars, and you could tell your Mommy and your Daddy how you miss them...
"And I also wrote my mother, 'Please look at the stars. We’re going to be watching them. So let’s see how much love we can feel that those stars are giving us.' I taught them how to look at the grass, and the beauty of the flowers that hide under the grass. Because we had nothing. Because we didn’t have money, we didn’t have parents, everything was something empty and we had to fill it with things that were free."
Sanchez-Pando recounts cramming multiple teaching and licensing exams into six months at the University of Miami. While starting the program at Coral Way and forging a new life in Miami, Sanchez-Pando's frenetic schedule left little time for sleep. However, there is great pride in her voice as she remembers how she and her fellow new teachers coped.
She would study at UM "from 6:30 at night to 11:00 and then rush home, be a mother, a wife, a teacher, do the homework for the university, do the translating for the school, correct the papers of the kids. Now come on, we proved ourselves great. I’m very proud, very proud, of having been part of that group."
Special thanks to the University of Arizona's Oral History of Coral Way Bilingual Elementary Program for interviews and photos used in this story.