More than a third of the students enrolled in the nation’s urban districts are Hispanic—a milestone the Miami-Dade County, Fla., schools met and surpassed years ago.
The 347,000-student district, the fourth-largest in the nation, is about 65 percent Hispanic. About 54 percent of students speak Spanish at home, with sizable percentages speaking such other languages as Haitian Creole, French, and Portuguese. Seventy percent of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a measure of poverty.
Its demographic challenges notwithstanding, Miami-Dade has largely managed to buck the negative trends seen in many other big-city districts with large populations of Hispanic students.
Local educators say part of that success is due to an education system that has had years of practice in educating students whose home language is Spanish. Another piece can be linked to the district’s ties to a community where Hispanics are not only present in large numbers, but also have political clout and an appreciation for maintaining bilingualism.
“We embrace the cultural and linguistic diversity that students bring to us,” says Alberto M. Carvalho, who has been superintendent since 2008.
For decades, people from Cuba, Central America, and South America have migrated to South Florida, laying down roots that have extended for generations. At the same time, the area’s demographic makeup has been shaped by political upheaval, such as the massive Mariel boatlift in 1980 that brought 125,000 Cubans to Florida in the span of five months. The new arrivals included many with far fewer economic resources than the Cuban immigrants who came before them.
However, the district’s 4th and 8th grade Latino students have managed to earn above average scores in mathematics and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The achievement gaps between Latinos and whites in these subjects are also smaller on average than they are for other large, urban school districts and the nation as a whole. In addition, Miami-Dade ranks first in the nation in both the number of AP exams taken by Hispanic students and the number of Hispanic students earning a 3 or higher, out of a possible 5, on at least one AP exam, according to statistics provided to the district by the College Board, the New York City-based sponsor of the testing program.
The U.S. Department of Education has directed states to use a new graduation-rate calculation, which includes standard diplomas but excludes the GED and special diplomas. By that calculation, Miami-Dade’s graduation rate for Hispanic students in 2010-11 was 72.8 percent, compared with 69.4 percent for Hispanic students statewide. The overall graduation rate for the district was 71.3 percent versus 70.6 percent statewide.
That still leaves a lot of nongraduates. Using a different formula, the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center elsewhere in this report names the district as one of 25 “dropout epicenters” for Latino students—largely due to its size and its high concentration of Hispanic students. But the overall progress of Hispanic students here appears to be better than for many other big-city districts with similar socioeconomic stresses.
In maintaining its above-average performance, Miami-Dade County has some advantages that other districts grappling with large Hispanic student populations may not have. For one, the district has had decades to hone its English-language-learner programs, and it also has a high percentage of teachers and administrators who are familiar with the cultures that students bring to school. Spanish language and Hispanic culture is tightly woven into the fabric of the community.
Students in the community “stay very well connected to their Hispanic or Latino roots,” says Mileidis Gort, an assistant professor of language and literacy education at the University of Miami. Such ties help students academically, she says.
the 2011 NAEP trial urban district assessment provides achievement-gap data on a national group of 18 large, mostly urban school districts. Across those systems, Latino students on average score lower than their white peers in both reading and mathematics. The achievement gaps between Latino and white 4th and 8th grade students are consistently smaller in the Miami-Dade County district than they are for TUDA districts on average or the nation as a whole.
SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2011 Mathematics and Reading Assessments.
“It does make a difference that you do have that mixed income represented across the community, and that you do have people with very strong voices who have been here for a very long time,” Gort says. “No one will argue that you don’t need English, but it’s not just English that you need.”
Despite those advantages, other school systems can still learn from Miami-Dade’s example, says Carvalho. The district’s practices are “fully exportable and scalable to other districts,” he argues.
“My advice to superintendents and educators is that they do what their colleagues are doing—come and visit and inspect our practice,” he says. “How do we move the needle of language achievement?”
In Miami-Dade, Carvalho says, “the question is not whether Hispanic students can achieve at high levels, it’s ‘where is this being done?’ ”
When it comes to fostering English proficiency, for example, the district provides a menu of options. To both promote students’ English acquisition and preserve their heritage languages, Miami-Dade maintains bilingual programs in some of its schools, where students can spend 40 percent of the day getting core academic instruction taught in Spanish and 60 percent receiving academic instruction in English. The district also maintains secondary magnet programs where students use the academic curricula of such countries as Spain and Italy.
The school system has also become adept at evaluating incoming students’ language and academic skills quickly, administrators say. Most English-learners are given a double dose of English-language instruction each day. One class—or block of time, at the elementary level—is spent on grade-level reading and language arts.
Because the district serves so many English-learners, it’s able to divide those classes further, keeping students who are less proficient in English together, and grouping students who have better English skills in a different class.
All students eligible for English-as-a-second-language services also take a second class that is devoted to English-language development. The developmental class includes a mix of students at various levels of English proficiency.
For most students, other subjects are taught in English. But thanks to a 1990 consent decree, every teacher of basic subjects, in addition to every administrator and guidance counselor, is required to have training in strategies for teaching students with limited English proficiency. That decree grew out of a lawsuit between the state of Florida and eight organizations, led by the League of United Latin American Citizens, or lulac.
The plaintiffs “have continued to maintain their interest in the well-being of English-minority students,” says Rosa Castro Feinberg, a former Miami-Dade school board member and a retired professor of education at Florida International University in Miami, who does volunteer work with LULAC.
In middle and high schools, if enough students speak Spanish, the school is assigned a teacher or paraprofessional who serves as an “HLAP teacher,” which stands for Home Language Assistance Program. That instructor, who has access to classroom materials, works with beginning English-learners solely in their home language to translate textbooks and assignments.
The home-language-assistance program is also available for students who speak Haitian Creole. A multilingual team based out of the central office provides support in 20 additional languages, such as Mandarin and Hebrew.
HLAP helps ensure that students don’t fall behind in other subjects while they’re learning English, says Caridad M. Perez, a regional supervisor in the district’s department of bilingual education and world languages. “And, they want that security blanket,” she says of students.
Finally, administrators and teachers say they watch for students who show the ability to do higher-level work, even if those students are still struggling to master English.
“You have teachers who often help guide students toward those upper-level courses,” says Lisa L. Pizzimenti-Bradshaw, the principal of W.R. Thomas Middle School. Her school of 750 students, nearly all of whom are Hispanic, has a college-preparatory Cambridge Academy magnet program.
“You never want to hold a kid back,” Pizzimenti-Bradshaw says.
And each high school offers Advanced Placement courses or dual-enrollment programs with local institutions of higher education.
But the top-level view of Miami-Dade as a district offers only one perspective. Another view of the district’s work with English-language learners can be found in Leidy Vargas’ 1st grade class at the 1,300-student Kensington Park Elementary. The school, about 97 percent Hispanic, has 700 English-language learners at varying levels of proficiency, says principal Genaro Navarro.
In Vargas’ classroom, the students come in with little or no proficiency in English, and sometimes with little or no literacy skills in Spanish—though they speak the language, they may not know how to form letters or read.
The combination makes for some quiet days at the very beginning of the school year, Vargas says. She says she uses Spanish in the very beginning, but adds a small fib: “I tell them my Spanish is not very good, so they’re forced to speak to me in English.”
“I tell them, this is a family,” she adds, “and we’re not here to make fun of anybody.”
Vargas says she identifies with her students because of her own experience. She moved to Miami-Dade from Cuba when she was in 2nd grade, and her teachers did not speak Spanish. “I was a struggling student in the beginning,” she says.
Now, her classroom is a riot of text, with English labels on everything, from the closet to the teacher’s desk to the restroom. By January, she says, those shy students of a few months earlier have been transformed. “It’s like they’re a new set of students,” she says. “I see the jump.”
Some have learned English well enough that Vargas recommends them for the school’s dual language program, which educates English- and Spanish-speaking students in both languages.
Jorge Euceda, who teaches 7th and 8th grade students at the 1,015-student Citrus Grove Middle School, also works with students with barely any English skills, and often limited Spanish skills. It’s harder, though, for the older students to break through their fear of trying a new language, he says. So, he enlists the other students to help.
After the first few days of class, “if a student says something to me in Spanish, I say, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand you,’” Euceda says. Then he sends the student off to one of his or her peers for help.
“There’s always someone who knows a little more language than the one who comes in,” he says. The student giving help feels proud to be considered a classroom leader, and the student who gets the help learns more about his or her classmates, Euceda says.
Euceda doesn’t place labels on objects in his classroom as teachers of younger students often do. He takes advantage of technology,
however, to give students a visual of vocabulary words. During a recent lesson on words that have the root “morph,” he sent students to the classroom computers or asked those with smartphones to search for a picture that could be linked to “amorphous.”
His students need several different methods to fix vocabulary words in their minds; that requires careful lesson scaffolding, he says, in which he builds on previous knowledge.
Citrus Grove once had an academic program that allowed students to be taught some regular subjects, such as social studies, in their home language. Euceda says he recommended the school do away with it, and immerse thechildren in regular English as soon as possible.
“It’s tough on them, but if you’ve got to learn the language, you’ve got to live in that language,” he says.
The Citrus Grove principal, Emerce Ladaga, agrees that the change has “totally helped with language acquisition,” as has an admonition from teachers to speak only English with students.
The district still maintains some classes that offer basic subject instruction purely in Spanish for secondary students who have very low English proficiency, but such a program is expensive, says Beatriz Pereira, the executive director ofthe district’s division of bilingual education and world languages. A school has to have at least 25 students at the same proficiency level, plus a teacher who is qualified in the subject area and in teaching English as a second language.
The double dosing of English used in most Miami-Dade schools is more cost-effective, “and I really feel we’re getting good results,” Pereira says.
How to incorporate a student’s home language into academic life is an area of active research across the country, says Claude Goldenberg, a professor of education at Stanford University who focuses on academic achievement among language-minority youths.
What Miami-Dade is using is a type of “sheltered instruction,” inwhich students who are learning English are grouped together in language arts classes, Goldenberg says. The “sheltering” of those students is from competition with proficient English-speakers.
Many school districts use that technique, but one broad concern some have with it is that “when you shelter the instruction, you also water it down,” Goldenberg says.
“No one purposely wants to offer watered-down instruction, but that’s a potential risk,” he says. “If you keep English-learners in sheltered instruction too long, you’ll be depriving them of high-level, rigorous content.”
Miami-Dade tries to avoid that problem by offering most students sheltered instruction only in language arts, for a limited time. Rosa Castro Feinberg, the former school board member, says that districts without the community resources of Miami-Dade could look to a Mexican or Spanish consulate for help with curricula, such as the Plaza Comunitaria program sponsored by the Mexican government. They could also invest in parent training and consider drawing Spanish-speaking teachers from other countries or from Puerto Rico, she says, and train them until they can “grow their own.”
But a broader goal for all districts, in Castro Feinberg’s opinion, is to look at language diversity as a benefit to the community.
“Accept the principle that the home language is a resource. And put it to work on behalf of the students,” she says.