School & District Management

Some Dallas Principals Must Learn Spanish

By Mary Ann Zehr & Linda Jacobson — September 07, 2005 3 min read
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Some administrators in Dallas will be required to learn Spanish, under a policy approved by the school board.

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

Judy Meyer, the principal of David G. Burnet Elementary School, walks with Rocio Sanchez, 9, center, and Carolina Cabrera, 10. Some elementary principals will be required to study Spanish.

In Dallas, where 65 percent of the school 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 Spanish courses and three years to become “proficient,” which isn’t defined in the policy adopted Aug. 25. The district will pay for the courses.

Elementary schools that have received a “recognized” or “exemplary” label in the Texas state accountability system are exempted. 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.

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

The requirement is intended to increase parent involvement in schools with large percentages of parents who don’t speak English, Mr. May said.

Harley Eckhart, the associate executive director of the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association, said he considers the policy “another dang mandate” that is going to have a polarizing effect on minority communities.

Other districts with large populations of Hispanic residents, he said, might implement similar requirements “without thinking it through.” He added that cities with large concentrations of Vietnamese, or other residents of Asian descent, could argue that principals receive training in those groups’ languages.

“There’s no data to indicate that student performance is enhanced with a principal who is fluent in Spanish,” said Mr. Eckhart. As the principal of a 2,300-student high school in San Antonio for several years, he said, “there was always somebody right outside my door that I could pull in to translate.”

Schools, he added, have already been moving toward improving their abilities to communicate with language- minority families. Finally, he said, he worried that schools or districts might begin passing over otherwise qualified principal candidates because they don’t speak Spanish.

In explaining his case for the policy, Mr. May said: “The new [educational] approaches that are coming out are collaborative approaches. 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 J. Price, a board member 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.

Other Options

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

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

Mr. May said the new policy would 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 the middle and high schools with large percentages of English-language learners have a bilingual administrator, he added.

“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, located in Washington. She said some police departments have mandated that officers learn rudimentary Spanish, but she hadn’t heard of a school district requiring administrators to learn the language.

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