How Miami’s Coral Way School Paved the Way For Bilingual Education in the US

Collage by Alan López for Remezcla

Despite Latinos being the largest minority group in the country, the U.S. education system has consistently failed to incorporate our history in its classrooms. Doing the work your K-12 teachers likely skipped over, Remezcla’s Latino History 101 series is sharing the vast yet often unknown stories of Latinos and the people, moments, programs, movements and institutions that shaped and advanced our community throughout history.

When graduates at the Margarita Muñiz Academy in Boston get their diplomas, they don’t turn their tassels to Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten” or Vitamin C’s “Graduation.” At this commencement, where young scholars completed their high school education at the dual-language school, they’re dancing salsa while Marc Anthony’s “Vivir Mi Vida” booms through a speaker – and this scene is becoming ever more common all over the US. Throughout the country, schools with classrooms that instruct students in both English and another language, largely Spanish, are increasing, with the Harvard Graduate School of Education estimating there were 2,000 dual-language immersion programs in the US in 2011. But this bilingual education wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for a small Miami school project developed nearly six decades ago.

Starting in 1963, Coral Way School, a public school that opened in southern Miami in 1936, did something no other institution had previously done in the US: taught students, both native and foreign-born, in English and Spanish. With funding from the Ford Foundation, school district leaders, teachers, and Cuban aides started the first-ever, official two-way language immersion program. Together, they created a bilingual education curriculum that instructed 350 youth, from first to third grades, morning lessons in Spanish and afternoon instruction in English.

The program formed as a result of the Cuban Revolution of 1959. At the time, Miami experienced an influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants and refugees, many of them unaccompanied minors who had traveled to the US through Operation Peter Pan, an anti-Fidel Castro effort that allowed Cuban parents to send their children to the United States to avoid communist indoctrination. As a result, more than 14,000 Cuban youth found themselves in South Florida, an unknown terrain where their peers looked, spoke and behaved differently from them. The program at Coral Way offered these incoming Spanish-speaking children the opportunity to retain their language and culture during their time in the United States, which was not meant to be permanent as officials anticipated the Castro regime would fall.

“It wasn’t just about speaking or writing the language, it was about studying in both languages,” Bess de Farber, who was a first-grader when Coral Way began teaching in English and Spanish, told UANews, the University of Arizona’s school newspaper. “It was about making Spanish as equally important as English.”

In 2008, de Farber, a grants manager at the University of Florida Libraries, started working with the University of Arizona’s College of Education and library faculty to create the first comprehensive recorded history about the early years of Coral Way’s bilingual program. One of the founding teachers interviewed was Josefina Sanchez-Pando, who, like her colleagues, had been an educator back in Cuba and was simultaneously struggling to transition into her new home while helping youth with their own adjustments.

According to Sanchez-Pando, most of the non-native students “did not like the food, hated the environment, were lonely or sad, and were afraid.” To offer them comfort, she would sometimes leave her “pod” in the large multipurpose room where she held her class and take the children outdoors, where a lesson on astronomy made them feel closer to the parents they longed to be with.

“We would all bring a big, big towel, sit on the sand and look up at the stars and study the constellations … [I would tell them], ‘And we can see this in this position here, but in Cuba you would see it in that other position. Now, if you write mommy in your next letter, that three weeks from today we’re going to be here, lying on the sand, looking at the constellations, if they do the same thing over there, we could talk. We could look at the stars, and you could tell your mommy and your daddy how you miss them,” she said.

For Sanchez-Pando, nature was both a way to feel closer to home and to pass the time in this strange and unfamiliar environment.

“I taught them how to look at the grass, and the beauty of the flowers that hide under the grass. Because we had nothing. Because we didn’t have money, we didn’t have parents, everything was something empty and we had to fill it with things that were free,” she said of her time teaching at Coral Way.

While similar programs existed throughout the nation for young people who spoke languages such as German and Italian at the time, Coral Way was the country’s first public school with a bilingual and bicultural education program for English- and Spanish-speakers, and it pioneered dual-immersion instruction in the United States like none other before it. It influenced federal legislation and national academic programs around the US. In fact, not long after Coral Way held its first dual-language class, the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, which provided school districts with federal funds to create educational programs for students with limited English speaking ability, was passed, becoming the first countrywide legislation aimed at supporting bilingual students.

Dual-language programs have boomed all over the country since Coral Way first introduced its bilingual classrooms, with a joint U.S. Department of Education and American Institutes for Research report finding that 39 states and Washington, DC, had two-language education during the 2012-13 school year, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been met with resistance. As dual-language classrooms continue to populate, so do English-only advocates, who have previously fought to enact mandates that temporarily eliminated bilingual education in California, Arizona, Massachusetts and several districts around the country. According to opponents, bilingual programs are too focused on students maintaining ethnic culture and language instead of on assimilating them into US culture, an argument steeped in white fear of the alleged “browning of America.”

Research, however, finds that two-way dual-immersion programs, which instruct native speakers of English and another language in both of those languages, is beneficial to all students. According to a 2014 study out of Stanford University, San Francisco’s dual-immersion programs helped English-learning students succeed in math and literacy. Similarly, linguistic integration programs have proven to benefit native English-speaking students by making them fluent in another language and increasing their interest and understanding of multiculturalism. In Washington, DC, parents also believe that dual-language immersion programs have the potential of reducing racial and socioeconomic segregation in schools, which is currently worse than it’s been in the last 20 to 30 years.

In addition to fostering bilingualism, biliteracy, cultural diversity and high levels of academic achievement, for the children of Coral Way, and those in programs that mirror its two-way immersion classrooms today, instruction in English as well as one’s parents’ native language also cultivates an invaluable connection to home and family.

“After my mother passed, I lost connection with family in Argentina,” de Farber said. “It was through language – reading, writing and speaking – that I was able to rediscover those relatives. There is no price you can put on that.”

While the legacy of Coral Way is alive in the bilingual educational programs spreading throughout the US, the school also remains in operation. Today, its dual-language classrooms have expanded to include students from kindergarten to eighth grade. On campus, youth spend 60 percent of their school day learning in English and 40 percent receiving instruction in a second language. With the slogan “two languages, two worlds of opportunity,” it has consistently maintained high achievement scores, and, in 2014, it was recognized as “School of the Year” by the Spanish Consulate.

“I could have lost my heritage, easily,” de Farber, recalling her time at Coral Way and the role its dual-language instruction played in her life since, said. “I would be a completely different person.”