In Miami, School Aims For 'Biliterate' Education At Coral Way, the children of political refugees fleeing Cuba in the 1960s were not only expected to learn English, but also expected to remain fluent in Spanish and hold on to their culture. Today's students can read, speak and write in both languages.

In Miami, School Aims For 'Biliterate' Education

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Ari Shapiro.

Today in our series Two Languages, Many Voices, the sound of children's voices in Spanish and English.

In 1963, Coral Way Elementary School in Miami got a wave of new students, children of Cuban exiles fleeing Fidel Castro. They had to learn English fast.

MONTAGNE: Still, teachers did not want them to forget Spanish or their culture. The solution: bilingual immersion, teaching the children in both languages. Almost 50 years later, that's still how students learn at Coral Way. NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Every morning, shortly after 8:00 a.m., students at the Coral Way pledge allegiance to the flag and stand for the national anthem. Then...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Spanish spoken)

SANCHEZ: Spanish becomes the language of instruction. In this fourth grade class, reading assignments, science, math and social studies lessons are entirely in Spanish. After lunch, classes switch to English. On the playground, you hear a mix.


JOSEPHINE ORTERO: Mija, why are we running? Why?

SANCHEZ: That's Josephine Ortero, one in a long line of bilingual principals at Coral Way who've presided over what experts consider the gold standard of bilingual education in the United States.

ORTERO: When the parents come to Coral Way, they already know what they're buying into. We have proven that our methods here at Coral Way do work and that our students are successful and prepared to face the challenges ahead of them.

SANCHEZ: Most of the 1,500 students at the school Coral Way are low-income, but their test scores are among the highest in the city. After eighth grade, many go on to Miami's top private and public high schools. Some take up a third and fourth language.

For parents like Allen Miller, Spanish is academic enrichment - just as important as being well-read and really good in math.

ALLEN MILLER: We're an English-speaking household. Our son now is becoming fluent in Spanish. He loves it, and that's skills that he would not get normally under a traditional school system.

SANCHEZ: There are about 440 public bilingual immersion schools across the country, up from only a handful in the 1970s. A growing number today teach Mandarin and French, not just Spanish.

But in some states, like California, Arizona, Colorado and Massachusetts, bilingual immersion programs are banned because a majority of voters don't think children can learn proper English and at the same time hold on to a foreign language and culture.

It's an issue that gets caught up in the angry debate over illegal immigration, especially from Spanish-speaking countries. Even in Miami, when Rosa de La O tells people her kids attend a bilingual school, some always ask...

ROSA DE LA O: Are we loyal? Are we not? And you know, a child is going to absorb that.

SANCHEZ: These parents say being fluent in English and Spanish does not make you less of an American. It just creates more pathways to the American dream. Rosa De La O's family is a good example. They live in a beautiful home not far from Coral Way in Little Havana. Miguel, Rosa's husband, is an attorney in Miami.

MIGUEL DE LA O: And in this town you're going to have Spanish-speaking clients. They expect you to speak to them in Spanish. I absolutely get certain cases that I would not get, but because I can communicate with a client.

SANCHEZ: Miguel says teachers and administrators at Coral Way get that.

MIGUEL DE LA O: Being truly bilingual, and that's one thing Coral Way stresses - they call it being bi-literate - that's a notch above. When you can read it, write it, speak it. It's hard.

SANCHEZ: Coral Way is an extension of what Miguel and Rosa value - an identity rooted in both their Latino culture and their love for this country. It's what they want for their three children: Miguel, Rebecca and Anna.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I want a leg.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: I want a leg.

SANCHEZ: Today, they're celebrating Anna's 11th birthday. There's cake, ice cream and roasted pig on the menu. Everywhere you look, you see family pictures and reminders of the family's ties to Cuba, Colombia, Puerto Rico and Spain. There's also a picture of Rosa at the 1992 Miss U.S.A. Pageant. She was Miss Florida. You can't be more American than that, she jokes. Miguel says he too grew up feeling more American than Cuban.

MIGUEL DE LA O: And I didn't really tap into my Cuban roots until I was older and could appreciate it more. When I was a child, as I am now seeing in my own children, they just want to be Americans and they don't yet have that connection to their roots. They don't identify with it.

SANCHEZ: So how do the Miguelito, Rebecca and Anna see themselves?

ANNA DE LA O: I guess Spanish-speaking American.

REBECCA DE LA O: American.

SANCHEZ: What about Spanish? How important is that to you?

REBECCA DE LA O: I have to use it for my grandparents.

SANCHEZ: But do you ever use it with your friends?


MIGUEL DE LA O: I speak Spanglish. I say (Spanish spoken) my homework.

SANCHEZ: Spanglish. Teachers at Coral Way cringe when they hear it. They demand proper English and proper Spanish. This kind of rigor and rich immersion in the two languages is very different than what most Latino schoolchildren experience. Most still struggle with a sort of cultural ambivalence, in large part because schools put little or no value on the language kids speak at home. At Coral Way, Spanish has currency. Its success is based on the idea that being bilingual and being successful are not mutually exclusive. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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