South Florida charter schools offering new language options

Students in the math class at Archimedean Middle Conservatory stare at the board figuring out functions. But instead of saying equal they say iso. Instead of a they say alpha.

Thats because its all Greek at the West Kendall charter school, one of a half-dozen charter schools in Miami-Dade and Broward counties that have opened in recent years with a focus on foreign language.

At Archimedean, the kids take an hour of mathematics in Greek as well as an hour of the language itself every day.

Its interesting, said Constance Thurmond, 12, a seventh-grader in the math class. When you hear it in Greek, you sort of in your mind take it to English.

Constance has been going to Archimedean for five years and speaks in practiced Greek. She said she doesnt have trouble understanding her teachers when they teach in the language.

The handful of other foreign language charter schools in South Florida offer instruction in Spanish, French, Italian or Hebrew. A Mandarin Chinese school is planning to open in Miami-Dade in 2009.

The foreign language push comes as U.S. students struggle to keep up with their peers internationally and prepare for a future that is more globally interconnected.

It also shows other people that we as Americans respect other people and their languages and cultures and, lo and behold, Americans can actually learn other languages, said Nancy Rhodes, director of foreign language education at the nonprofit Center for Applied Linguistics.

Traditional public schools offer foreign language classes, often popular options like Spanish and French. But overall, kids in the United States are behind their counterparts elsewhere in the world who learn multiple languages while growing up.

At Ben Gamla Charter School in Hollywood, which has daily Hebrew language classes, some students have never spoken the language prior to coming to the school.

Its new, and children love things that are new, said Principal Sharon Miller. It almost is very aesthetically appealing to them because the letters look almost like an art form.

Nearly 600 kids attend the school, which opened last year and earned a B from the state based on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

SHARPENED FOCUS

Although critics were initially concerned the school would not be able to separate religion from language, the controversy has died down. The school sharpened its academic focus and kids from the surrounding neighborhood have been lured by the promise of a demanding program.

On a recent day, a class of beginners divided into teams to spell words in the Hebrew alphabet. Gabriella Rymshaw and Matthew Okun, both 10 and newcomers to the language, faced off at the board.

Both started attending the school this year because they were attracted by the unique language offering.

I was never really challenged and I really wanted a challenge, said Gabriella, who lives in Fort Lauderdale.

CHALLENGING

Hebrew gives her that challenge.

You always have to make sure that theres a certain way to write each letter, Gabriella said. You cant mess up or it will be some other letter. Or it wont be a letter at all.

Many schools have a strong emphasis on specific subjects as well as language.

Archimedean, an A school that has 721 students from kindergarten through ninth grade this year, focuses on mathematics and science as well as Greek language.

Theyre getting a well-rounded education, said George Kafkoulis, a professor of mathematics at Florida International University who co-founded the charter school in 2002 and serves as chairman of the governing board. But you have to be focused. The focus is to produce scientists and intellectuals of the next generation.

The Integrated Science and Asian Culture Academy is looking for a spot in North Miami-Dade so it can open in August 2009.

It will offer Mandarin Chinese classes as well as math, science and engineering and language will be infused through the curriculum, said Hui Fang Angie Su, chairwoman of the schools board and an education professor at Nova Southeastern University.

It make sense for our future generation to be able to speak this language, Su said.

Charter schools are publicly funded, but they have their own boards and flexibility to offer education in innovative ways. They are just as accountable as traditional public schools, which means kids still have to take the FCAT.

Even as the number of students enrolled in public schools has flattened or declined statewide in the last several years, charter school enrollment has increased.

Its a lot more complicated than it was 10, 15, 20 years ago just determining where to send your child to school, said Sevan Terzian, a University of Florida education professor.

For Andrea Pino, 16, the decision was easy. After attending a private school as a freshman, she wanted a more rigorous academic experience and insight into other cultures.

TWO DIPLOMAS

She found out about International Studies Charter High School in Coral Gables, which offers Spanish, French and Italian programs, and was sold. Students graduate with a regular diploma as well as a diploma from the country of their chosen language.

Andrea, a junior, and her younger sister Angeline, a freshman, are both in the Italian program.

Now I feel like I have an amazing insight into the Italian culture, Andrea said. She goes to see Italian movies, buys Italian music, visits Vizcaya — the Italian-style museum in Miami — and discusses it. In Italian.

At the A-rated school, which has 255 students, teens study their language and also take humanities and literature classes in that language. Students in the French program also take math in the language.

Principal Victor Rodriguez said students are extremely competitive.

Said Rodriguez: Theyre here to become bi-literate, bicultural, maybe trilingual.