Living in Orlando, Florida, provides a multitude of opportunities to speak Spanish. Everywhere I go, I hear Spanish speakers. At the bank, I often notice that not a single person is speaking English when I walk in. Sometimes, I find myself jumping in to translate for monolingual Spanish speakers in the grocery store or at the mall.
There is one place in which they are not being accommodated, though: education. Latinos make up 24% of the K-12 population of Florida, yet bilingual schools are hard to come by around here.
Since I have chosen not to put Isaías in school for another year (because of his January birthday and my unusual work schedule), I assumed that I would have the time to thoroughly research options for bilingual programs and find something that fits. Instead, I have found exactly two options: one, a bilingual Montessori school on the opposite end of this sprawling town; the other, an elementary school with a foreign language academy that my stepdaughters currently attend. Sure, plenty of preschools in the area offer weekly Spanish lessons or exposure to Dora and Diego books, but only those two offer full-time instruction in English and Spanish.
What is the cause of this major shortage of Spanish in Orlando schools? For one, Florida has never been known for its high-quality public education, to say the least. This is just another example of how antiquated it really is. Another problem is the growing white-to-Latino prejudice: the exaggerated backlash against the fastest growing demographic in this region. Finally, there are so few bilingual teachers in Florida. Ironically, this stems from the fact that many bilinguals are not given the same opportunities as monolingual Americans, and therefore cannot achieve the necessary scholastic milestones to become public school teachers. Many do not even have high school diplomas, much less a Master’s degree.
Aside from having to face the sad reality that my son may not have the Spanish reinforcement he needs in his academic life, I take a professional stake in this topic. A good amount of my tutoring business comes from bilingual students whose parents do not speak English. I help them apply to college and assist their parents in getting around all the barriers that immigrants face when their children are learning in a language they do not understand. More than the average Orlando resident, I see Spanish speakers as allies, rather than enemies. If we do not train and educate young bilinguals as well as we do white, monolingual Americans, we will end up with an uneducated majority in the near future.
As my son walks around with his little “pack-pack” on, asking to go to school with his stepsisters, I agonize over the fate of his Spanish skills and of my increasingly Spanish-speaking community.