SARASOTA, Fla. — As part of Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re looking into the importance of speaking Spanish at work and, now, in early education.
About 23% of Floridians speak Spanish at home, but when students go to school it’s often only English.
That’s a barrier one school in Sarasota is trying to knock down with the county’s first dual-language grade school.
“Dreamers Academy is the first dual-language school in Sarasota,” said Head of School Cathy Rodriguez. “We do our 50/50 model...we teach one day in English, and one day in Spanish, all content areas.”
Dreamers Academy started in August with kindergarten through second grade with nearly 200 students.
In the kindergarten wing, Josette Ortega and Camila DeVeau-Biter are co-teachers. On a Wednesday morning, ABC Action News visited their classrooms. They were both teaching math lessons, Ortega in Spanish and Biter in English.
“My family is from Puerto Rico,” Ortega said. “So I've always had both growing up so I know the importance of children who don't speak any Spanish exposing them for 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 neat thing about dual language is that… she’s not just… memorizing words she's truly understanding how the Spanish language works,” Biter explained.
Believe it or not, Dreamers Academy was started by a volunteer in Sarasota schools.
“I noticed so many kids that were amazing in Spanish, just smart and alive and full of energy and then like ‘Ms. Chaffee, English please,’ and that's like what happened to you, where’d you go?” Founder Geri Chaffee said.
“How are we educating these children? I mean it seems like they're there, they're really smart and they are eager to be here and learn, but they don't understand the language of instruction,” Chaffee added.
Most traditional English Language Learner (ELL) programs take Spanish speakers out of class to learn English. Stats show those students are often two grades levels behind by eighth grade and have lower high school graduation rates.
A decade ago there were about 200 dual language (DL) programs across the U.S. Now there are more than 3,000.
University of Florida Professor of Bilingual Education Maria Coady estimates there are about 120 DL programs in Florida, but said it’s hard to know for sure because the state will not track the data.
The majority of the state’s DL programs are in Broward County.
“Idalina Orta from Broward. She started two classrooms, pilot program with $2,000. Right now, Broward has 50 schools that have dual language programs,” Chaffee explained. “Now she's got data that goes all the way to eighth grade. Those kids are doing better than the rest of the entire district.”
Across the bay, Pinellas County Public Schools has two DL programs and Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS) has seven.
An I-Ready diagnostic chart from HCPS shows DL students in kindergarten through second grade are outperforming both their general education and district peers in both reading and math — in Spanish and English.
Chaffee said she’s proud of how far we’ve come, but there’s still a long way to go.
Studies have shown a wide variety of benefits from learning another language, including brain development and even a later onset of cognitive diseases such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's.
“There are a lot of studies now that have proven that the bilingual brain is more flexible, there's a lot of compare and contrast that happens, you're more sensitive to other points of view,” Chaffee said. “You don't make assumptions so quickly, and also the executive function of the brain is enhanced — the cognitive development, intellectual capacity of the brain is enhanced.”
“Other countries are teaching languages in third and fourth grade, why not us?” Rodriguez asked.
Biter said she is hoping her daughter will be “truly bilingual and bi-literate… have a more worldly vision and to be a better citizen.”
Chaffee also started three dual-language programs in Manatee County schools.
Some of these programs are choice, so you can apply to get in regardless of where you live.
Dreamers Academy in Sarasota still has a few open spots for kindergartners this year.