Putting Education Reform To The Test

In Immokalee, Parents Promise To Speak Spanish With Their Children

Immokalee Community School offers classes to help parents encourage bilingual children.

Wilson Sayre / WLRN

Immokalee Community School offers classes to help parents encourage bilingual children.

To get into Florida colleges and universities, you have to have studied—or be able to speak—a second language. But Florida students don’t have to take foreign language classes to graduate from high school.

So in a part of the state where most families already speak a second language, Immokalee Community School is leaning on parents to make sure their children stay bilingual. As a condition of their children attending the school, every parent has signed a contract to speak Spanish with their kids for at least 30 minutes a day, most days of the week.

It’s an unusual effort to keep the students of Immokalee Community School from losing their Spanish—something that often happens between generations of immigrants.

“All the Spanish I’ve learned I’ve had to learn through school, through work,” says Cece Estrada, a social worker at the school. She grew up in Immokalee, her family migrated with the crops. When they spoke to her in Spanish, she answered in English—and she didn’t grow up bilingual.

Cece Estrada is a social worker at the school.

Wilson Sayre / WLRN

Cece Estrada is a social worker at the school.

“That’s why I encourage it, because now I understand how important it is to be able to have that second language,” says Estrada.

Immokalee Community School is an RCMA charter school serving the largely Mexican and Central American migrant communities in this small, agricultural town in Central Florida. The school is 94% Hispanic, and most of the parents speak Spanish at home.

“We should never see the home language that a student brings to the classroom as some kind of problem that needs to be fixed,” says Robert Linquanti, a researcher and policy advisor with WestEd. “It’s a resource that can be built on.”

Linquanti points out there’s a lot of research showing that speaking more than one language is associated with all sorts of benefits—better multitasking skills, more developed critical thinking, stronger math skills.

Florida has a history of pioneering dual language education. Coral Way Elementary School in Miami was the first school in the United States to offer bilingual education in 1963. Trina Sargalski from partner station WLRN profiled the school 50 years after its first dual language class:

“It was supposed to be a temporary curriculum to help Cuban students retain their language and culture, while people waited for the Castro regime to fall.

Today the school, which has since expanded to the eighth grade, continues to thrive. Coral Way’s elementary students spend about 60% of the day learning in English and 40% learning in Spanish.”

The movement to encourage bilingual children is also getting attention at the federal level.

“It is going to be a priority for me,” says Libby Doggett, deputy assistant secretary for policy and early learning at the U.S. Department of Education. When she spoke earlier this fall at a conference on Hispanic early learning issues in Miami, she told a crowd that she’d like to see more bilingual support as early as preschool.

“I’ve seen the research: it’s clear. We are losing an asset these children have,” says Doggett.


  • Victoria Gilbert

    It will take more than speaking to their children 30 minutes a day. They should be reading to them and building equal literacy in both languages. Parents could also have playgroups where only Spanish is spoken. Children learn from their peers/ siblings
    as well as their parents.

    • Mjhmjh

      Better still would be for them to speak ONLY Spanish to their children
      at home. The children will learn English at school, anyway.

      Many children go through a stage where they are embarrassed about speaking a different language at home and resist it. But if parents persevere and always use the language inside the home, even if the children
      insist on replying in English (as Ms Estrada did) then the children will still
      learn it. And eventually, when they are in high school, and they see their
      peers struggling to learn a foreign language, they will be proud of their own ability and grateful to their parents for giving them the gift of bilingualism.

      • Chas Gonzales

        They shouldn’t only speak Spanish at home. Many of my friends still speak accented English and their skills lack because of that practice. Parents should be comfortable to speak both language, whenever and wherever necessary. ANY amount of time spent is good.

        • Mjhmjh

          Thank you for your interesting response to my comment. I agree that it is helpful if parents (and everyone!) can speak both languages. And I appreciate the sharing of your experience. But I’m wondering whether their progress in English was also hindered at school. I recognize the importance of becoming literate in two languages. But for oral proficiency there is a crucial window of time. After the age of about en, it is difficult to achieve native oral proficiency – achieving written proficiency.is far easier. In many schools, a reverse system is applied. Children who speak a language other than English are taught in their native language for a number or years, with the amount of English increasing each year. As a result, they don’t receive enough oral practice in English to lose their accent. I think that in the primary years, the focus should be on oral English, with only enough Spanish being used to make very small children comfortable and unafraid. They will already have no accent in Spanish and they can, focus on their Spanish literacy later, once their everyday English is fluent and accent-free (as in my opinion, it will become., if they speak as much English as possible at school in the early days.) I lived in an area where many families had a different home language. The mothers of my children’s friends told me that their children’s progress in English improved dramatically once they were moved out of the special English program and into the regular classroom. I really wish that the bilingual/English only debate had not become a political football. In my view, the political motives involved had a very negative and lasting effect on the very children whose education was at the heart of the debate.

  • Sweet Briar College Student

    I think this would be a great idea especially for children or young adults who parents did migrate from a different country and the child was born in america because it teaches them their family roots. i think it would also benefit these children because if they were to go to their families native country they would understand at least some of their customs. Also too speaking from an americans point of view it would help americans better understand the Latino/a community better, so we could come together and create mutual grounds of understanding, support, and communication.

  • Vanessa

    But Florida students don’t have to take foreign language classes to graduate from high school.

  • Tevel42

    Desde luego, no hace falta justificar la necesidad y el derecho de estos niños a desarrollar la primera lengua que adquirieron antes de ser escolarizados, pues bien sabidas son las consecuencias de una adquisición interrumpida (la situación de diglosia ya sería un logro), como muestra la demanda creciente de aulas de español como lengua de herencia en las universidades. ¿Por qué tener que esperar tanto para empezar a aprender el español académico? Lo lógico, natural y más inteligente es cuidar ese aspecto desde que los niños inician su escolarización en kinder. Algo tan obvio se pasa por alto en nuestras escuelas exclusivistas de “English only”.

    Y coincido plenamente con
    Victoria, cuando apunta que no basta con hablarles. En casa tenemos lectura y
    discusión diaria en español, y prohibido el inglés en los ámbitos familiares.
    Películas, canciones…, todo lo que se nos ocurra que pueda aumentar el caudal
    de entrada de español. Claro que va a hacer resistencia por parte de los niños,
    sobre todo en cuanto empiezan la escuela y su mundo se ve inmerso en el inglés,
    por eso hay que compensarlo en el hogar, dado que no hay apoyo oficial
    académico ni comunitario.

    ¡Ánimo a todos y no desfallezcan en el esfuerzo!

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