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Paying extra for Spanish class

Parents are going all out to get their kids to learn the language, paying the schools and private tutors to teach it.

By MONIQUE FIELDS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 30, 2002

Parents are going all out to get their kids to learn the language, paying the schools and private tutors to teach it.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Bay Vista Fundamental School's first students arrive before sunrise. They sit on the floor in front of their teacher and vow in unison not to speak another word of English during class.

"Uno, dos, tres. Adios Ingles."

Spanish class is in session for two dozen kindergarteners and first-graders. The regular school day won't start for another 40 minutes, but their parents have hired Pinellas teacher Janice Johnson to give them a jump start on foreign language.

Spanish is a luxury at most bay area elementary schools, which suffer from tight budgets and crowded class schedules. But parents and schools such as Bay Vista are finding creative ways to meet the demand.

At Bay Vista, parents pay $3.25 a week for the class, or $1 for children who receive free or reduced lunches.

Ridgecrest Elementary School in Largo raised money from picture sales, candy sales and donations to purchase more than $5,000 worth of Espanol Para Ti videotapes. They also enlisted Spanish-speaking parents to reinforce the lessons during regular class time.

In November, parents at Curtis Fundamental Elementary School in Clearwater will begin paying $5 a week to the Global Language Center, a private company in Safety Harbor, to teach their children Spanish.

"The younger they are, the more they tend to have a better grasp of a foreign language," said Kristy Ryan, whose son T.J. attends Bay Vista.

A grass-roots movement is taking shape at elementary schools in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties. Bay area parents are asking principals and teachers to offer foreign languages, band and other classes even if they are outside the regular school day.

That leaves Florida trailing eight states, including North Carolina and Louisiana, that require their school districts to teach Spanish to elementary students.

In Hillsborough County, where nearly one-quarter of the 174,000 students speak Spanish, video tapes called Saludos are available to all elementary schools. A handful of schools have immersion programs, where teachers instruct students in Spanish in all or most of their subjects. Others, like Mitchell Elementary School, have before- or after-school programs. Meanwhile, more than 100 Hillsborough teachers also are taking Spanish.

"We're providing training for teachers to learn Spanish, and then they go back and teach their children," said elementary supervisor Nancy Fernandez.

Pasco County is offering Spanish during the regular school day at two elementary schools. It is taught in the morning and reinforced in the afternoon while teachers present other subjects, such as science or social studies.

The program has been successful because Northwest Elementary and Seven Springs Elementary have teachers who have mastered English and Spanish.

"We didn't move anything aside, nor did we have to hire a special teacher," said Bea Palls, Pasco's supervisor of world languages.

Only six Pinellas elementary schools offer Spanish during the regular school day. Two -- Bay Point and Perkins in St. Petersburg -- have full-time teachers. Melrose has an employee who helps coordinate its Spanish curriculum. Three -- Campbell Park, Gulfport and Maximo -- use videos to teach their students.

Bay Vista's program began three years ago, after School Board member Nancy Bostock wanted her oldest daughter, Sarah, to learn Spanish. She helped survey parents and learned there was keen interest.

"Parents were willing to pretty much pay anything," she said.

Now there is a waiting list for Bay Vista's Spanish classes.

"It's great for those kids, but it's too bad for those children who can't get that opportunity," said Nancy Rhodes, director of foreign language education at the private, nonprofit Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C.

Learning a second language enhances children's mental development, improves their understanding of their native language and introduces them to other cultures, Rhodes said.

"They don't have a fear of speaking another language," said Johnson, a Spanish teacher at Bay Point who teaches at Bay Vista Fundamental three days a week.

Joe Smith, whose daughters are taught by Johnson, is willing to open his wallet.

"You know, as a parent, it is our responsibility to make sure the things the School Board may not provide that we provide for our kids, if we're able to," he said.

At Curtis Fundamental more than 100 parents pay $5 a week so their children can stay after school to learn Spanish. They will walk to North Greenwood Community Family Center in Clearwater and be taught by Global Language Center, a private company. If that works, the school may look at other alternatives next year.

"If it could be free, that would be great," said Tori Charles, a parent who is helping organize the classes. "Money is an issue. We're not wealthy by any means."

But "they've got enough problems," said Charles. "I'm not going to ask them to throw in a foreign language."

At Ridgecrest, Ellen Bedell, a parent volunteer, makes rounds two days a week to give students context about what they learned the day before.

Carrying a white cardboard box filled with puppets, blocks and other teaching aids, she sits down for 15 minutes in classes. She reinforces the words, colors, numbers and shapes the children heard on a videotape a day earlier.

Ridgecrest has eight Spanish-speaking parents, like Bedell, who help out. For 12 years, she taught English as a second language in New Jersey and Utah. Now she teaches during her spare time.

Midway into a class she asks the students to look at the shapes.

"Vamos a mirar las formas."

She picks up a triangle-shaped object and asks about its color.

"De que color es el triangulo?"

"Verde," the students repond, saying "green."

"Excelente y perfecto."

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