SARASOTA, Florida – As part of Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re examining the importance of speaking Spanish at work and, now, in preschool education.
About 23% of Floridians speak Spanish at home, but when students go to school, it is often only English.
It’s a hurdle that a Sarasota school is trying to break down with the county’s first bilingual elementary school.
“Dreamers Academy is the first bilingual school in Sarasota,” said school principal Cathy Rodriguez. “We operate our 50/50 model … we teach one day in English and one day in Spanish, all content areas.
Dreamers Academy began Kindergarten to Grade 2 in August with nearly 200 students.
In the nursery wing, Josette Ortega and Camila DeVeau-Biter are co-teachers. One Wednesday morning, ABC Action News visited their classrooms. They both taught math classes, Ortega in Spanish and Biter in English.
“My family is from Puerto Rico, ”Ortega said. “So I always had both growing up, so I know the importance of children who don’t speak Spanish, which exposes them to future opportunities, job opportunities, college opportunities. “
Biter, who doesn’t speak much Spanish, said trying to learn a second language later in life was difficult for her. That’s why she enrolled her daughter, Reagan, in first grade at Dreamer’s Academy.
“The good thing about dual language is… she doesn’t just… memorize words, she really understands how the Spanish language works, ”Biter explained.
Believe it or not, Dreamers Academy was created by a volunteer in the schools of Sarasota.
“I noticed so many kids who were amazing in Spanish, just smart and lively and full of energy and then like ‘Ms. Chaffee, English please ‘, and that’s like what happened to you, where did you go? Founder Geri Chaffee said.
“How do we educate these children? I mean, it looks like they’re there, they’re really smart and they can’t wait to be here and learn, but they don’t understand the language of instruction, ”added Chaffee.
Most traditional English language learning (ELL) programs take Spanish speakers out of class to learn English. Statistics show that these students are often two levels behind from eighth grade and have lower high school graduation rates.
Ten years ago, there were approximately 200 bilingual (DL) programs in the United States. There are now over 3,000.
University of Florida bilingual education professor Maria Coady estimates there are around 120 DL programs in Florida, but said it was difficult to know for sure because the state would not be tracking the data .
The majority of the state’s DL programs are located in Broward County.
“Idalina Orta from Broward. She started a two classroom pilot program with $ 2,000. Currently, Broward has 50 schools that offer bilingual programs, ”explained Chaffee. “Now she has data up to eighth grade. These children are doing better than the rest of the district as a whole.
Across the bay, Pinellas County Public Schools have two DL programs and Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS) have seven.
An I-Ready diagnostic chart from HCPS shows DL students in Kindergarten to Grade 2 outperform both their general education and their district peers in reading and math – in both Spanish and English.
Chaffee said she was proud of how far she has come, but there is still a long way to go.
Studies have shown a wide variety of benefits associated with learning another language, including brain development and even later onset of dementia such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.
“There are now a lot of studies that have proven that the bilingual brain is more flexible, there are a lot of comparisons and contrasts that occur, you are more sensitive to other points of view,” said Chaffee. “You don’t make assumptions so quickly, and the executive function of the brain is also improved – the cognitive development, the intellectual capacity of the brain are improved.”
“Other countries teach languages in third and fourth year, why not us? Rodriguez asked.
Biter said she hoped her daughter would be “truly bilingual and bi-literate… that she would have a more worldly outlook and be a better citizen.”
Chaffee also launched three bilingual programs in schools in Manatee County.
Some of these programs are elective, so you can apply to enter them no matter where you live.
Dreamers Academy in Sarasota still has a few spots open for kindergarten children this year.