Spanish immersion school to open this fallWritten by Danielle Stanton | | email@example.com
When they were young, speaking Spanish outside the home was akin to speaking a dirty word. Robert Torres, the executive director of the Northwest Ohio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, grew up one of 13 children in Swanton: “All I knew was Spanish. It was sink or swim,” he said. His brothers couldn’t pick up English and struggled. All of them learned to hide their culture and to feel ashamed of their heritage.
The discouragement they felt in the 1960s and 1970s is changing as today’s second- and third-generation Spanish speakers experience a resurgence in Latino pride. That new sense of self-worth can’t be more evident than in the new Spanish immersion school set to open this fall at 1850 Airport Hwy. in South Toledo.
Toledo SMART Elementary School (TSES) for grades K-2 is a bilingual-multicultural Spanish-Latino charter school, serving families in South and East Toledo. A charter school is an independently operated school funded with taxpayer money. Students at TSES will have a full day of school and buses will drop them off at their doorstep.
Bilingual teachers have been recruited from a qualified pool across the city and nationwide, Torres said. They will teach a core curriculum of math, science, reading and language arts, including extracurricular activities. The school will begin with K-2 and then add grades in the coming years, Torres said.
The desire for such an immersion school goes back about 10 years. And local demographics show the need is there. Thirteen percent of Toledo’s population is Hispanic and children make up 25 percent of that number, Torres said.
“The community has been talking about doing a Spanish immersion school for a very long time. It’s usually talked about then tabled, talked about and tabled. There’s always members who have tried to keep it going,” said Linda Alvarado, executive director of the City of Toledo’s Board of Community Relations.
Alvarado has studied and researched Latinos in education for several years. Her findings are startling.
Though she did not have statistics, Alvarado has found that Hispanics have the lowest graduation rates and the lowest completion rate for bachelor’s degrees. Researchers have found a definite gap in achievement levels.
“We can’t get them through the pipeline,” she said.
Her diagnosis begins with the womb, Alvarado said. Many Hispanics lack prenatal care and then children are often not put into preschool. When they do reach school, the fact that they come from a Spanish-speaking home becomes a hindrance. Parents, because they don’t speak English, are less likely to get involved in their child’s education.
This can cause Hispanic children to downplay their heritage. TSES school administrator Maria Gonzalez, a native Spanish speaker, said that to this day her grandchildren will only speak Spanish with her and to no one else.
Despite the lingering shame, Torres and Gonzalez stressed the advantages of being bilingual. The biggest advantage is in the business world where many companies are recruiting bilingual workers. They said if you strengthen your Spanish skills, your English skills will sharpen as well. That goes for all subjects, Gonzalez said.
“They told me (30 years ago) not to speak Spanish at home,” Gonzalez recalled. “They were ignorant. [At TSES] the kids can feel comfortable talking to staff members.”
Torres and Gonzalez hope the school will be a welcome mat for immigrants coming from Spanish-speaking countries.
“We’re creating an example of how to invite immigrants,” Torres said.
America was founded and built by immigrants, Gonzalez said.
If you turn on the TV or listen to the radio, Hispanics are represented today in great numbers, they said. Communities celebrate holidays like Cinco de Mayo and the Hispanic presence is felt.
Gonzalez has been visiting Hispanic families around Toledo to recruit their children to TSES for the fall opening. She has been building trust, she said. The parents have a lot of pride and are excited about the new school.
The goal of TSES is to “improve the education outcome of Latino students,” Torres said. In 2010, the Hispanic dropout rate in Toledo was close to Cleveland’s — about 70 percent. It’s that statistic that organizers are hoping will improve when students are immersed at a young age.
Torres used existing immersion schools in Dayton and Columbus as his guide in structuring the new school, but called it a “community-wide” effort.
“We don’t want others to go through what Robert went through and what I went through,” Gonzalez said. “We are not part of the problem; we are part of the solution.”
Maria Rodriguez-Winter, the interim executive director of the Sofia Quintero Art and Cultural Center in South Toledo, was amazed when she traveled to visit her husband’s family in Switzerland and Germany where everyone spoke English and family members spoke three to four languages.
And when she travels to Mexico, she visits with friends who speak Italian, French and English.
We live in a multicultural, multi-lingual world, she said, and the United States is sometimes viewed as “parochial” in that we don’t speak more than one language. She sees the new immersion school as a step in the right direction.
“It’s a fabulous program. I am a strong believer in teaching our kids more than one language,” she said. “The younger they start the quicker they learn and the more they retain. The more they are able to communicate outside this country from a social and political and business perspective [the better]. It is our responsibilities as parents and community leaders to educate our children the best way we can, so I think it’s a positive step in Toledo. And for our population to think that English is the only language that can be spoken is a very parochial way of thinking.”
Guisselle Mendoza, executive director of Adelante, a Latino community resource center, knows firsthand the challenges of being a Spanish-speaking person in an English-speaking culture. She was an immigrant from Nicaragua and had to learn English in the United States. She lived in Miami for a time and then moved to Toledo.
She agreed the community needs a school like TSES that can break down the barriers for Hispanics. She said often at public schools, if an event or a parent-teacher conference is scheduled, the notice is sent to parents in English. She believes the new charter school will help bust those barriers.
“My position as executive director of Adelante is to serve our community and our community needs a school where our needs are met in regards to language barrier and transportation,” Mendoza said. “Unfortunately, our clients have not received certain services in the private and public [sector] and even charter schools. This charter school, I think it’s their goal to serve the needs [of Spanish-speaking persons].”
Two new Spanish immersion Head Start programs will begin in the fall that cater to preschool-age children.
Brightside Academy on Lagrange Street is currently working with TSES, Torres said. The Spanish program at Brightside will serve children from birth to age 4 and will act as a precursor to children entering TSES, he said.
Toledo Public Schools (TPS) will also open a Head Start classroom with a bilingual teacher dedicated to 4- and 5-year-olds who are Spanish-speaking. As at TSES, the classroom is also open to English-speaking learners.
Rumors that TPS will open an entire school this fall dedicated to Spanish immersion are false, said Jim Gault, executive transformational leader and director of curriculum for TPS. However, the district is looking into creating a Spanish immersion program by the 2015-16 school year, he said.
“We believe there’s a need. We know there’s a need in Head Start; as far as district-wide and covering an entire school, we don’t have the answer for that yet,” Gault said. “We’re going to look at the feasibility of having a program. … We’re not going to rush into this. We’re going to do it right. We’re going to make sure, if we do this, it’s quality.”
Tags: City of Toledo’s Board of Community Relations, Guisselle Mendoza, Hispanics, Jim Gault, Linda Alvarado, multi-lingual, multicultural, Northwest Ohio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Sofia Quintero Art and Cultural Center, Spanish Immersion, Swanton, Toledo Public School, Toledo SMART Elementary School, TPS, TSES, TSES school administrator Maria Gonzalez