The New Conquistadors

Published June 11, 2000|Updated Sept. 27, 2005

Hundreds of teachers are coming from Spain to teach in schools across America. Nowhere is that impact being felt more than in a Miami's George Washington Carver Middle School.

More than four centuries after Spanish conquistadors abandoned Florida as economically worthless, the former colonial power is making a comeback.

In Latin American business circles it has been dubbed the reconquista, or the reconquest of its former empire. Spanish banks, the national airline and a major telecommunications firm, have all made recent trans-Atlantic ventures.

But away from the boardrooms, almost unobserved, Spain is making its presence most effectively felt _ in the classroom.

Hundreds of "visiting" teachers and classroom aides come from Spain to teach Spanish language and culture in schools across America.

"We are the "invincible armada,' " jokes Alejandro Villa-Allande, coordinator of the Spanish government program in Miami. "It's unstoppable."

Nowhere is that impact being felt more than in Miami, where the most popular public middle school operates a Spanish curriculum _ not just language classes, but math and humanities.

Even world history is taught the way it is taught in Europe.

"We are the only public middle school in the country accredited by the governments of Spain and France," said Simine Heise, principal of George Washington Carver Middle School in Miami. "We have taken their curriculum and methods and infused it into ours."

"School of Excellence'

There is nothing readily special about Carver Middle.

Quite the opposite. Situated in one of Miami's poorer neighborhoods, West Grove, its buildings are old and crowded. Hardly the setting for a cultural revolution in public school education.

In the mid-1980s Carver was struggling with falling enrollment. Crime in the neighborhood soared. Nearby on Douglas Road, crack cocaine was taking over.

As a response, parents, community and business leaders came up with what was then a remarkable solution.

Miami was beginning to emerge as a commercial and business hub for Latin America, attracting foreign businesses and U.S. multinationals. The school persuaded the district to make Carver a multilingual magnet school. The idea was to blend local education needs with the demands of foreign business leaders who wanted a more international education for their children.

The idea caught on. Since then it has spread far beyond foreign parents, to include many Anglo and African-American students.

Today, Carver is universally regarded as the best public middle school in Miami-Dade County. Enrollment is up to 950. It is so popular, slots are determined by a lottery. Last year the school had to turn away more than 250 students.

Its attendance record and academic scores are the highest in the county.

In 1996, Carver won national recognition from the U.S. Department of Education as a Blue Ribbon "School of Excellence." President Clinton attended the ceremony, commending the school for eliminating drugs and violence.

Carver's success lies in a unique teaching experiment. In cooperation with the governments of Spain, France and Germany, a large chunk of student classes, including math and humanities, are taught in a foreign language.

Starting at elementary level, the International Studies program includes 1,200 students at five magnet schools. The schools are evaluated each year by inspectors from Madrid.

Thirty other public schools have set up mini dual-language "academies" to complement the traditional English-language curriculum. Six more public schools are joining next year. Private schools are interested in joining the system.

Given Miami's ties to Latin America, Spain's Ministry of Education has taken particular advantage of the school district's openness to foreign education. It provides some of the curriculum and textbooks. Madrid also pays the salaries of five teachers from Spain.

The teachers are part of a team of more than 50 education specialists posted across the nation at Spanish consulates, state education authorities and university language programs.

Hundreds of "visiting' teachers and classroom aides also come from Spain _ there will be 800 next school year _ selected by local school districts, with salaries paid from county education budgets. Of those, 150 are destined for California and 130 for Texas.

"Our secondary schools are changing," Carver principal Heise said. "There's much more emphasis these days on critical thinking. We are working more toward international standards."

Heise gives as examples the European math and science system, which places greater emphasis on problem solving. Tests in humanities are in essay form, with only occasional multiple-choice exams.

"It's more challenging. They have to think and write."

"The world is going global'

In Myriam Buitrago's seventh grade humanities class at Carver, the Greeks and the Romans are los griegos and los romanos."

For one hour Buitrago grills students on the cultural legacy of the one-time European superpowers.

"Mrs. B," as students call her, is from Colombia. The textbook she uses is from Spain. Her questions _ and the students' answers _ are all in Spanish.

But teachers at Carver say the benefits of multilingual education far outweigh any apparent obstacles.

"Language is not a barrier," said science teacher Patricia Soto, 51. A sign in her office reads, "Mathematics is the language of science." She adds, "It doesn't matter what language you learn science in."

Although her classes are in English, she is a fan of the school's international concept. "The world is going global. We think we are cutting edge because we have a global neighborhood here," she said. "We say "Vive la diference.' We celebrate it around here."

The course work is not easy, with up to three hours of homework a day. Parents joke that Carver students are easy to pick out because they walk with arched backs from the loads they carry.

"At first the idea seemed impossible," said Ashley Hamilton, a 13-year-old African-American student, who started the dual language program in second grade at Sunset Elementary. "They start with cat is gato, and you have to memorize the whole language. But how do you do that?"

Hamilton is a top student who took home half a dozen school prizes this year. She scored a perfect 20 for an unaided written essay in Buitrago's class on the cultural legacy of the Greeks.

She read the three-page essay to her multiethnic class with aSpanish accent that would put many Hispanic students to shame.

Her reason for studying Spanish:

"Well, we live in Miami," she said. "The Hispanics aren't willing to learn English a lot of the time so we have to accommodate them."

That doesn't bother her. Hamilton has already decided she's going to be a lawyer. Speaking Spanish will help her chances.

The decision to join the International Studies program was made by her mother, Marsha Hamilton. It made cultural and economic sense, said Mrs. Hamilton, who moved to Miami from her native Jamaica in 1979.

"In Jamaica, we are accustomed to having a broader education," she said. "We were schooled in the British system, which includes other cultures. I was trying to reach for that."

But it could also end up saving Mrs. Hamilton money.

"It's so highly regarded academically. It has scholarship value," she said. Carver is the only public middle school in the county where students can take college level Advanced Placement exams in languages as early as eighth grade. Students who pass the exam can earn college credit.

Last year 98 percent of the students passed. Carver graduates often go on to be eligible for Bright Future scholarships at state universities.

Test results show there is almost no difference in standardized scores between Carver's Hispanic, Anglo and African-American students. Although the majority of students are enrolled in Spanish classes, those studying French and German achieve the same standards.

The Spanish connection

With Hispanics estimated to make up 25 percent of the U.S. population by 2050, Spanish is becoming more important in major cities.

In a 1996 report prepared by the Spanish government, it is clear Madrid sees real opportunity in the growing influence of Hispanic-Americans to promote its language and culture.

"The level of use and potential growth of the Spanish language in the United States constitutes a fact of enormous transcendence, as much from a strictly linguistic perspective, as educational, economic, social or political," according to the report, which outlined a "strategic plan" for Spanish language education across the United States.

For the first time since its days of empire, Spain also now finds it can afford the luxury of exporting its culture more widely.

After decades of dictatorship, Spain has recently emerged as an economic power in Europe.

Madrid is eager to shrug off its stereotype as the nation of Don Quixote.

"Stereotypes are very powerful," Villa-Allande said. "But we want people to know that Spain has its Nobels in science and biotechnology."

As part of the effort to raise the image of Spain and its language, the 1996 plan described the need "to promote models that bring prestige to Spain and Spanish language education."

In the United States, Spanish had long been associated with poor immigrants struggling to grasp English as a second language. "Speaking Spanish isn't just for the janitor," said Rosa Sugranes, a Spanish-language advocate and chairwoman of an international tile company in Miami.

The Spanish plan highlighted Miami's Cuban-American population as being "well-placed socially and economically" to serve as a springboard for promoting a new educational approach.

With school districts stretched to the limit across the nation, the help from Spain is welcome. Florida hopes to use the example of Spain to forge agreements with countries in Latin America.

"Spain is positioning itself to regain its pre-eminent status as an economic and political power, and to be a bridge between the U.S. and Latin America," said Bernardo Garcia of the Florida Department of Education. "They view the U.S. as part of that complex. There are more Latin Americans in the U.S. than in many Latin American countries."

However, the Spanish connection is not without problems.

Local Hispanic educators do not always see eye to eye with their counterparts from Spain.

The teachers from Spain struggle to cope with the lack of discipline in U.S. classrooms, as well as student paperwork and school bureaucracy.

"It's a culture shock no matter how much they prepare you," said Manuel Porcel, a Spanish teacher at Carver, who came four years ago from Granada in the south of Spain. "Teachers in Spain are used to having more respect and autonomy." Even so, he is impressed with the results at Carver.

So are local business and civic leaders in Miami who would like to see the Carver model expanded.

That may well be enough to ensure that Miami remains fertile ground for Spain's global ambitions. The rest of the country may not be far behind.