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28393: Hermantin(News)Dueling Languages (fwd)

From: leonie hermantin <lhermantin@hotmail.com>

Posted May 1, 2006

Biscayne Boulevard Times

Morningside Elementary:
Dueling Languages
The Debate Over a Proposed
Dual-Language Program

By Christian Cipriani
BBT Editor

With the volunteer program at Morningside Elementary, which the BBT and other news outlets have reported on in recent months, failing to shape up as many hoped, Miami-Dade County Public Schools (MDCPS) is mediating an alternative solution: Turn Morningside into a dual-language magnet school by the start of the next school year.

An April 17 meeting between parents and school board officials was supposed to resolve how the languages
Morningside parents will receive a survey sent home with the student, but non-parent community members can weigh in on the dual-language program at the school’s library media center, May 2, 3 and 4, from 9 a.m. to noon; proof of address required. Morningside Elementary is located at 6620 N.E. 5th Ave.

would be chosen and how the citizenry would contribute to that process. At present, school officials and community members are debating between Spanish, Creole and French, with two slated as core offerings and one an elective. But not everyone is happy about these choices, and here’s what the two sides are saying:

The Cons of Creole
With the volunteer program stalling before ever leaving the gate, parents and teachers hope the dual-language initiative will help raise a troubling statistic: Only 35 percent of students leave Morningside reading at grade level. While similar programs have revived schools in other areas, this latest initiative to fix problems at Morningside has raised a complex dilemma: What languages should be at the program’s core?

Kathryn Mikesell, a school activist who spearheaded efforts to establish the volunteer program, argued that Mandarin Chinese would be more applicable than Creole, giving children “an edge when it comes to succeeding in our global economy.”

But according to Mikesell, “People at the April 17 meeting made this into a race issue.” Wendy Stephan, a Buena Vista East activist and mother who sends her first-grader to South Point Elementary in Miami Beach, agreed: “MDCPS officials had their heads in their hands. When things become a race issue, there’s no way anyone can win.”

Morningside Elementary serves a large and diverse community, from Baypoint near N.E. 36th Street, stretching north to N.E. 79th Street, and from N.E. 4th Court east to Biscayne Bay.

Haitians account for almost 70 percent of the student body and Hispanics almost 30 percent, with a negligible percentage of seats occupied by Caucasians and others. According to Mikesell, whose young children will likely never attend the school, the debate is complicated by the fact that for the past four years it’s been “mostly whites” fighting to bring Morningside out of C-rating status.

Now, faced with the question of language, Mikesell believes previously inactive community members are arguing from a standpoint of cultural protectionism by advocating for Creole, racializing the debate against those questioning Creole’s usefulness, who claim to be doing so from an economic and educational standpoint. In a dual-language environment, children are statistically more likely to excel by learning in their native language. If Morningside’s majority Haitian-American population chose the Creole track, they would learn in English for 60 percent of the day, and for the remaining 40 percent learn Creole language, history and conduct entire subjects exclusively in that language.

Similarly, Hispanic children on the Spanish track would spend almost half the day learning in their native tongue. Lessons in the third language, which in Morningside’s case may be French, would be offered to students at an optional Saturday Academy.

Making the two core languages of a dual-language magnet school the two native tongues of 99 percent its students is a seemingly obvious choice, but not the best solution according to some. Detractors cite two limitations: Creole is predominately a spoken language, and it is virtually irrelevant as a social or economic tool outside of South Florida and Haiti.

If the goal is to arm children with worldly adaptability, Mandarin, English, Hindustani, Spanish and Russian are the world’s most widely spoken languages, while French and German are heavy-hitters in global business.

Dual-Language Perhaps Not the Solution
But is language-as-tool the concern of early education? According to Fedo Boyer, the Haitian-American owner of CreoleTrans, a company which provides translation services to, among other clients, MDCPS, early education should capitalize on the preexisting conditions of the child’s life, which for the majority of Morningside students is a Creole-English upbringing. To him, the question of educational language should not factor in economic advantage at such a young age, but concern itself more with helping a child become a good learner.

Boyer, a resident of the Little Haiti/Buena Vista area, also noted that “what will best serve one in the global market” was the rationale for teaching Haitians exclusively in French for nearly 200 years – Creole as a part of Haitian education and society in general is a relatively new development.

So while children of Haitians already have their foot in the door of the French language, which is certainly more useful in the global sense, it is unlikely Haitian parents will advocate the mother tongue of a long-time colonial oppressor as a core language. According to Boyer, the circumstances of Haitian-Americans are quite unlike those of Hispanics. For a dual-language program to be effective, Boyer argues that as much needs to happen at home as in school, and Haitian parents are simply not as literate as parents from Hispanic and Caucasian backgrounds.

Whereas a Hispanic child could likely take an assignment in Spanish home and discuss it with a parent, such is not the case for most Haitian-American children, many of whose parents, if at all educated, received training in both French and Creole.

Boyer acknowledged that one argument for Creole as a core language at Morningside is culturally motivated: Parents of the majority student population want their kids to embrace, learn about and be proud of their Haitian background, which could well encourage greater achievement.

The question, he believes, is not what the core languages should be, but whether or not the structure of a dual-language program will really benefit a majority of students by addressing the root of underperformance. Morningside already offers students struggling with English alternative lessons in Creole, but despite this, grade-level literacy hasn’t budged.

Boyer’s experience as an educator in Miami-Dade County has allowed him to observe a pattern of factors common to underperformance: Poor parents who are uneducated and speak little English are most likely to produce children who struggle with education. A dual-language program cannot address a weak parental support structure, which is detrimental to the success of this approach to learning.

Gepsie Metellus, director of Sant La, a Haitian neighborhood organization at 5000 Biscayne Blvd., has a slightly different take: She agrees that language at the elementary level is about establishing a framework for learning, but she has a softer opinion of Haitian parents’ capabilities, and believes in the potential of a dual-language program: “It stands to reason that there must be someone in a child’s household to correct them in the native language. Competence and relative mastery of a native language by a student can occur too without parental mastery.”

And although she is a vocal supporter of Creole as a core language, she insists she’s “not pushing for any one language,” but a means to improve the general state of education at Morningside.

Metellus exemplifies the tempered Haitian perspective – positive in her support of the majority of students learning in their native tongue, but not blindly clinging to the familiarity of one’s roots, roots the Haitian community struggles to nurture here on foreign soil: “This is about more than heritage: It’s about mastery of language, and mastery of language development. Basic education should be mastered in one’s native tongue, and this program will help kids better develop language and learning in general, giving them a fighting chance to be fully bilingual and bi-literate.”
Community Input

But to assume for a moment that a dual-language program will commence, the last issue of debate is who should have input. Despite officials’ plans to welcome the views of parents and community members in general, Metellus argued against this: “In general, when there’s an issue regarding a school, it’s the parents of students who are afforded opportunity to give feedback. While I welcome the input of everyone, because I know everyone just wants to improve the school, I want there to be a mechanism which allows parents of students to be heard.”

The decision to consider all community members is not unprecedented: A similar method was used for the foreign language program at Emerson Elementary, and isn’t as detrimental a method as Metellus thinks. According to Wendy Stephan, the languages are not the issue for her; having a local, quality alternative to sending her kids to school in Miami Beach is:

“I don’t live within the boundaries… but this is a community issue, we need to fight for quality education. If that program took off it would be an attractive option.” The BBT offered MDCPS the chance to run a survey in Creole, English and Spanish in this issue, one which residents could cut out, complete and mail back to the school district, and on it indicate their language preferences.

Joseph Garcia, chief communications officer for MDCPS Superintendent Rudy Crew, replied to the BBT’s suggestion in an email statement, which read in part: “We will be surveying parents very soon on which permutation of the three languages is preferred. I believe there are better ways to reach out than the one you propose.”

On April 25 the school district reached a solution: A parent survey in English, Spanish and Creole was sent home with students (one for each student, even if from the same family) on May 1, which parents can complete and return by May 4. A School Improvement Zone administrator will be in the library’s media center on May 2, 3 and 4, from 9 a.m. to noon, to collect the views of non-parent community members. Proof of address is required. The tallying of results will occur after school is dismissed on May 4, to which the public is invited.

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