Published Online:

School's Pioneer Bilingualism Gives Way to Changing Times

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

The Cuban revolution, 25 years ago this month, resulted in the first large-scale wave of Latin American immigration to the United States in the modern era and spurred the development of new theories and pedagogical practices addressing the needs of non-English-speaking children.

The following article looks at how one Miami school became a model for bilingual learning in the early 1960's. Later this month, in a series of articles, Education Week will examine other aspects of the bilingual-education movement.

By Hope Aldrich

Miami--In the early hours of Jan. 1, 1959, Fulgencio Batista secretly boarded a plane and fled Cuba, leaving the country of nine million people to the new regime of Fidel Castro. In Cuban towns and cities on that New Year's Day 25 years ago, streets echoed with shouts of "Viva la Revolucion!"

Ninety miles away, here in Miami, the events of the Cuban revolution attracted little attention on New Year's Day. The crowds were out on the streets here, too, but they were celebrating the Orange Bowl Festival. Miami in 1959 was still a glittering resort city of about 900,000 where the sound of the Spanish language was seldom heard.

The little-noticed revolution in Cuba would change that, unleashing an exodus of more than a million refugees, more than half of whom would settle in Miami in the next 25 years, transforming the culture, the economy, the schools, and the language of the city.

In 1959, only one out of every 20 Dade County schoolchildren spoke Spanish as a first language, according to district figures, and no special programs were offered them.

But only three years later, after the Castro government confiscated private land and businesses and the Bay of Pigs invasion failed, 18,260 Cuban refugee children had enrolled in the school system, making up nearly 10 percent of the total school population. (Today, the 80,000 Cubans in the system constitute about 36 percent of its total enrollment.)

At that time, the school district had no teaching materials for the new Spanish-speaking students and no teachers trained in second-language techniques, according to district records. In desperation, the school board applied to the Ford Foundation for a grant to create new textbooks. In early 1963, the foundation approved a $278,000 grant on the condition that a pilot bilingual school also be established.

Nine months later, the Coral Way Elementary School, situated in a quiet middle-income neighborhood, became the nation's first bilingual public school in modern times.

Coral Way Elementary is a rambling school spanning three blocks in a residential area less than a mile from the ocean. The classrooms open onto a courtyard shaded by ivy-covered oak trees.

"It was one of the choice schools in the country," recalled Joseph Lee Logan, principal of the school from 1960 to 1972. "There was room for everything. We had only 350 kids. It was an upper-middle-class area--65-70 percent Jewish." Less than a mile away was Brickell Avenue on the ocean, "where the millionaires lived," Mr. Logan noted.

The school was also located less than a mile from Southwest 8th Street, known as "Calle Ocho," a lower-rent commercial street where many of the Cuban refugees were settling and starting small businesses. As soon as they saved money, they moved to homes near the school, Mr. Logan said. Most were well-educated professionals who had been lawyers or businessmen in Cuba.

As a result, Coral Way's enrollment by 1963 was almost exactly divided between children of the new Cuban refugees and native English speakers, Mr. Logan said, and it was this balance of languages that made it an attractive choice to pilot the Ford Foundation experiment.

Until the Coral Way experiment, most of the country's bilingual programs were designed to make English the dominant language of non-English-speaking children. Those immigrant families who wanted to preserve their native language as the dominant one had to pay for lessons at private schools, churches, or community organizations.

'Transitional' Program

In the early 1960's, Dade County also began to introduce intensive classes in English to help non-English-speaking students learn English faster, said Ralph Robinett, Dade's director of bilingual and foreign-language education. This "transitional" program was called English for Speakers of Other Languages (esol), he said.

The purpose of the Coral Way plan, however, was to encourage students to develop skills in two languages--to create schools of true bilingualism, where a student was equally at home in English and Spanish, according to authors William Francis Mackey and Von Nieda Beebe, in their book Bilingual Schools for a Bicultural Community: Miami's Adaptation to the Cuban Refugees.

The main reason for trying the new plan was that the Cuban refugees' circumstances differed from those of early immigrants and demanded a new kind of flexibility: These families did not expect to stay in the U.S; they planned to return home as soon as the political climate changed. But as it turned out, the refugees were to become firmly established in Miami.

"An educational policy designed to integrate them into a unilingual, English-speaking community would have both unrealistic and unfair," write Mr. Mackey and Mr. Beebe. "But so would a unilingual education in Spanish, since no one knew how long these children would have to remain in the United States." The solution, school officials decided, was a new type of school that would put Spanish and English "on an equal footing."

The resulting plan, called the split-day plan, was worked out by a team of experts. It initially struck many people--especially parents--as odd. The children would study all morning in their native language and be taught core subjects by native-speaking teachers. Then, after a ''mixing time" for gym, the arts, and lunch, in the afternoon they would start the routine all over and study the core subjects again, but in the second language. To avoid exact repetition, the afternoon sessions would use slightly different drills and texts, but would cover the same content.

To make sure the morning and afternoon sessions were precisely synchronized, teachers at each grade level were "teamed" with their counterpart in the other language to spend an hour each day on lesson planning, said Mr. Logan.

"We planned so carefully that if I taught subject and predicate in the morning, she [the Spanish-language teacher] knew to teach them in the afternoon," recalled June Kidder, a teacher who joined the Coral Way staff in 1965.

The instructional plan was based on the assumptions that most students would be proficient in their native language and that there would be a transfer of skills and understanding from one language to another, according to district spokesmen.

To fill the need for bilingual teachers, the district advertised for Cuban refugees trained as teachers and sent about 60 of them (many of whom had doctorates from Cuban institutions) for an intensive summer program at the University of Miami, where they obtained temporary certificates. Six of these ("the cream of the crop," said Mr. Logan) were chosen for Coral Way, where the program began in grades 1-3 only.

At first, Mr. Logan said, he was alarmed by the new program. "I tried to beg my way out of it," he admitted recently. "I told them, 'Get someone who knows about bilingual education."'

Some English-speaking families also objected at first. "We had to do a real selling job to the North American parents," Mr. Logan recalled. "They would ask, 'How is my child going to learn in one half a day what it used to take a whole day to learn?"'

The split-day program was voluntary, and when some skeptics still refused to accept it, Coral Way set up a few traditional classes. "At first there were 35 of them, but they dwindled to five or six by the end of the first year," Mr. Logan recalled with satisfaction.

By the end of the first year, Mr. Logan said, even he had shed his doubts. Within one year, Cuban refugee children were learning English well enough to be "independent," meaning they could communicate effectively in the new language, said Ms. Kidder. Five years later, an evaluation of national test scores showed that Coral Way students performed as well as English and Spanish-speaking students in regular schools, while they also learned a second language.

Sense of Urgency

Mr. Logan and teachers at the school in those early years attribute the success of the novel program largely to two factors. The first was the refugee children's sense of urgency about learning English.

"Those first families had to learn English to survive; some parents even had to take their children out of school to be translators on business trips," recalled Ms. Kidder. "Today," she added, "you could be born, grow up, and die here, and never speak anything but Spanish. There are Latin medical facilities, Latin department stores, whatever you need."

Another teacher recalled the strong support the children had from home. If the parents did not speak English themselves, they hired a tutor to come in for their children, recalled Shirley Powers, who came to teach at Coral Way in 1964.

Families also regarded the school building as a place of great importance and wanted their children to arrive in style if they could afford to. "It was a status symbol--to have your child pull up in a van," Mr. Logan said.

Before long, fleets of brightly colored vans began to arrive at Coral Way in the mornings, delivering refugee children, he said. Parents, no matter how poor, banded together and hired vans and drivers, he said, recalling: "One child lived only 400-500 feet away from school, but he was still picked up by a van. When I questioned the father about it, he said it was safer that way."

The second key factor that made the Coral Way system work was the teacher-team system, administra-tors said. "The secret to success is to have the school organized so that two teachers can sit down eyeball-to-eyeball and plan how to integrate their lessons," said Mr. Logan.

But the plan failed in one respect, officials said. One of its goals was to make English-speaking children as proficient in Spanish as in English. Yet most of these children simply did not acquire a hoped-for level of fluency in Spanish, according to Mr. Mackay and Mr. Beebe. The school district saw this as "a logical outcome for members of a nation's majority language group" and did not fault the split-day method, the authors add.

The three-year pilot project was hailed as a success, and a second split-day program opened in an elementary school in Miami Beach in 1966. Then, district officials decided to expand it to other schools; it was being used in more than 20 other schools at its peak in about 1972, according to Mr. Robinett.

The increase corresponded with a second massive influx of Cuban refugees on the "freedom flights" authorized by President Lyndon B. Johnson that brought in another 261,000 refugees between 1966 and 1973.

Coral Way met a special need for a highly educated and ambitious group of refugees--the very first to come from Cuba, and its success was called spectacular by local school officials.

But far-reaching federal actions in education and changing immigration patterns in Miami combined to reduce the effectiveness of the experimental program. Now, it is one of only four split-day bilingual schools still in operation in the district, and its future is in doubt.

One of the main causes of the plan's gradual demise was a federal staffing desegregation order in 1970 that significantly altered the district's staff-hiring pattern. "Schools couldn't hire the Latins they needed (for the split-day plan); they had to hire blacks," said Ralph Robinett, the district's bilingual and foreign-language director.

A second factor was the increasing transiency rate in schools like Coral Way, Mr. Robinett said. The neighborhood around the school became almost entirely Cuban after the freedom flights and the Mariel boatlifts of 1980, which brought in another 125,000 Cubans. Today, Coral Way is 90-percent Cuban. The socioeconomic level of the neighborhood has declined because many of the later refugees have been blue-collar workers who often move around looking for work.

A third factor, according to Mr. Robinett, was that as neighborhoods became more Latin, parents became less worried about a need to preserve their native culture: The culture was all around them. Most preferred regular schools supplemented by the esol and other bilingual classes now offered by the district.

Today, classes at Coral Way are divided not by native-English or native-Spanish speakers, but "by who knows English well or less well," said Mr. Robinett.

Changed Neighborhood

"Unfortunately, the neighborhood changed," said Paul Rojas, chairman of the school board, the first Cuban refugee to hold the post, and a strong advocate of the Coral Way system. The original purpose of the school, which was to attract and mix both cultures, is no longer possible on a neighborhood level, he said.

Another board member, Janet McAlily, said board members have been concerned that Spanish-speaking students are no longer achieving a high level of proficiency in English and still speak with heavy accents when they leave the split-day programs. "I'm not sure these schools are relevant anymore," she said.

Last year, in a move in the opposite direction, the school board began looking at the "immersion" method of English instruction, a system that pushes non-English-speaking students into regular classes even faster than the esol, or "transitional," method. A pilot experiment with that system is scheduled to start this spring.

Now, the main hope for Coral Way's survival is to convert it to a systemwide language magnet school, Mr. Cejas said. "Coral Way was a milestone," he stated. "It was the first school to deal with the realities of a multi-ethnic community. It was a terrific success in its time."

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Recommended

Commented