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Dallas Schools Require Some Principals to Learn Spanish

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The Dallas School Board has approved a policy that will require some school administrators to learn Spanish.

The new policy, approved by a 5-4 vote on Aug. 25, now requires that all elementary school principals who work in schools in which at least half of the students are English-language learners, or formerly carried that designation, must learn the native language of those students.

In the Dallas Independent School District, where 65 percent of the system’s 160,000 students are Hispanic, that basically means some principals must learn Spanish. Those administrators have one year from now to enroll in a Spanish course and three years to become “proficient,” which isn’t defined in the new policy. The district will pay for the courses.

Elementary schools that have received a “recognized” or “exemplary” label in the state’s accountability system are exempted from the policy. The policy applies similarly to middle and high schools with large numbers of English-language learners, but those schools are permitted to select a principal, vice principal, or dean of instruction to fulfill the requirement—rather than just the principal.

“I’ve never heard of a school board ever requiring this,” said Dora Johnson, a senior program associate who monitors school foreign-language issues at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington. She said some police departments have mandated that officers learn rudimentary Spanish, but she hasn’t heard of a school district requiring its administrators to learn the language.

Opponents Critique Policy

The policy is the brainchild of Joe May, a Dallas school board trustee and Mexican-American. Mr. May grew up in a Spanish-speaking household in Laredo, Texas. He first learned English after he enrolled in school.

The policy is intended to increase parent involvement in schools with large percentages of parents who don’t speak English, Mr. May said. “The new [educational] approaches that are coming out are collaborative approaches,” he said. “That means working together with parents. If you are going to be applying it to kids whose parents don’t speak English, the only way that’s going to happen is through the requirement that the principal learns the language of the parent.”

But Ron Price, a board trustee who voted against the policy, said it is unfair. “To ask people who have active lives and busy schedules to learn a second language and become proficient is almost impossible in some cases,” he said.

It is important for school staff members to be able to communicate with parents who don’t speak English, he said, but the responsibility for that shouldn’t be put on administrators. Schools have other options, such as hiring bilingual liaisons to talk with parents, he noted.

“When you connect a person’s employment to the ability to speak a second language, that might be unconstitutional, and it’s un-American,” Mr. Price said.

In response to the characterization of the policy as “un-American,” Mr. May gave a little laugh.

“I chuckle,” he said, “because this is how naïve these people are. In Texas, a good portion of Hispanics are raised speaking Spanish and when they go to public schools, they learn English.”

Mr. May said the new policy will affect almost 50 schools in the district. Out of 14 elementary schools that have a high percentage of English-language learners, a dozen already have a principal who speaks both English and Spanish, he pointed out. But only about half of the middle and high schools with large percentages of English-language learners have a bilingual administrator, he added.

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