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Dallas Superintendent Proposes Spanish Requirement for Graduation

By Peter Schmidt & Peter Schmidt — November 08, 1989 6 min read

All students in the Dallas Independent School District should be required to study Spanish before graduating from high school, the district’s superintendent has told the board of education.

The bold and potentially controversial proposal, which has yet to be drafted for formal consideration, is a recognition of the value of bilingualism for all students in an increasingly Hispanic region, according to Superintendent of Schools Marvin E. Edwards.

If enacted, such a mandate would make Dallas the only major U.S. district to require study in a specific foreign language for a high-school diploma, experts in language curricula said.

“We are not asking that Spanish become the dominant language,” Mr. Edwards said in an interview last week. “We are just recognizing the value of Spanish for someone who resides in this part of the country and in this particular city.”

“It is a language that is important for communication” throughout the region, he said.

Blacks constitute the largest single group in the 132,000-student Dallas system, accounting for 47 percent of enrollment. But Hispanics, who make up 33 percent of the student population, are the only group whose share of enrollment has been rising in recent years, district officials said.

Mr. Edwards would not specify what level of Spanish-language competence he wishes to require, or how or when a Spanish requirement would be implemented. “It’s just an idea right now,” he said.

The idea was one of several the school chief unveiled last month in a “state of the district” address to the board of education. Presenting what he said were his goals for the district in the 1990’s and beyond, Mr. Edwards also called for requirements in English proficiency, computer literacy, and values education for all students.

Larry T. Ascough, special assistant to the superintendent, said staff members in the district’s central office would be given the task of setting minimum competency levels under the proposed Spanish requirement.

Pupils Seen as a Help

“Obviously our students need to be able to speak at a conversational level and to read,” Mr. Ascough said. “If you start [teaching Spanish to] kids at the lower grades and the primary grades, they won’t have any problem.”

A district spokesman, B. Rodney Davis, said the requirement itself could be adopted by the district without approval from the Texas Education Agency. But, he said, the state would have to approve any new courses implemented as a result of the requirement.

Mr. Ascough said the district plans to use its population of Hispanic students to help teach Spanish to children whose first language is English.

“Many districts see the challenge of students who are non-English-speaking as a negative,” he said. “We are trying to turn that around and turn it into an opportunity.”

Phap Dam, director of world languages for the district, said the implementation of a Spanish requirement “would be expensive,” because it would require extensive recruitment of new teachers.

Currently, Dallas employs about 150 teachers to instruct 12,000 students, about 9 percent of the enrollment, in nine foreign languages. About half of the instructors teach Spanish, Mr. Dam said.

District officials interviewed said a Spanish-language requirement would simply give English-speaking students the tools to deal with life in their heavily Hispanic city and state.

“Our culture and our economics are tied to the culture and economics of the Hispanics,” Mr. Ascough said.

But not all parents in the district appear willing to accept the argument that students need to learn Spanish to succeed in an American state. Mr. Davis acknowledged that the proposed requirement has drawn objections from some parents.

And some local Hispanic leaders have expressed mixed feelings about Mr. Edwards’s idea.

Graciela Aleman, president of Mexican American Professionals for Education, a coalition in the Dallas area, described the proposal as a political ploy that would do little to improve the quality of education available to Hispanic children in the district.

Still, Ms. Aleman said, “for a superintendent of an inner-city school district who has done nothing to promote equal representation [of Hispanics] within the teaching staff and the administrative entity,” the idea “would seem to be a move in the right direction.”

‘Win-Win’ Proposal?

Nationally, the superintendent’s proposed requirement drew sharply differing reactions from advocacy groups that have frequently clashed over bilingual-education issues.

James J. Lyons, executive director and legislative and policy counsel for the National Association for Bilingual Education, last week described the requirement as “a win-win proposal” for both the Hispanic and non-Hispanic communities, provided it does not get implemented at the expense of instruction in other languages.

“Dallas is taking the logical step of building on strength,” Mr. Lyons said. “There is a growing recognition that, if you want to teach a second language, you should build on the resources within the community.”

“When you’ve got large numbers of language-minority kids, those children can be a great resource to the English-monolingual child, and vice versa,” he said. “It’s not a two-way street. It’s a two-way fast-moving highway.”

But Yale Newman, director of research and communication for U.S. English, an organization that favors a constitutional amendment to make English the official language of the United States, accused the Dallas district of seeking to acknowledge Spanish as “a de facto official language” there.

“Saying that those who live in the the Dallas area must know Spanish to communicate is putting English on the same footing as any foreign language, which is absurd in our society,” Mr. Newman said.

“If there is a requirement for foreign languages, it must be broad-based,” he said. “If [Dallas students] are going to participate in the American mainstream, they may one day find themselves in Boston or New York or wherever and may need to know a language other than Spanish.”

Few Language Requirements

Leaders of associations for teachers of languages, meanwhile, praised the superintendent’s plan to seek a foreign-language requirement, but echoed fears that a mandate for studying Spanish would be implemented at the expense of other language programs.

“I think it is unfortunate that Mr. Edwards is just focusing on one language instead of giving a large number of students a modicum of choice,” said Helene Zimmer-Loew, executive director of the American Association of Teachers of German and president of the Joint National Committee on Languages, an umbrella group of 32 foreign-language associations.

Jamie B. Draper, assistant director of the Joint National Committee, said most districts and states do not require instruction in any foreign language. She said that among the current mandates:

Louisiana requires elementary schools to provide instruction in a second language to pupils in grades 4 through 8, and North Carolina is in the process of developing a similar policy.

Fourteen states--California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia--require credits in a foreign language for admission to a state college or university.

Credits in foreign-language instruction are required for graduation from high schools in New York City and the District of Columbia, and for graduation from the honors programs of high schools in Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.


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