Bess de Farber was a first-grader in Florida when her Coral Way Elementary School teachers informed the students that they would begin learning in both English and Spanish.
It was 1963, and immigration from Cuba was causing a dramatic demographic shift in Miami. As a result, Coral Way instituted conversational Spanish instruction before adding dual language instruction to its curriculum for both English and Spanish speakers.
It was a national first.
Although some schools had offered similar programs for those who spoke languages such as German and Italian, Coral Way became known as the nation's first public school with a bilingual and bicultural education program for both English and Spanish speakers.
"I had no way of knowing this was such a big deal. Probably none of the kids had any idea how important it was,” said de Farber, grants and revenue manager for The University of Arizona Libraries and Center for Creative Photography.
Eventually, the school’s program would influence legislation, pedagogy and other programs for decades to come, and still exists today.
Now, de Farber is working with College of Education and University library faculty and staff who plan on spending the year completing the first and most comprehensive recorded history about what happened at Coral Way, a project the group hopes will inform current discussions about bilingual education, particularly in Arizona.
The group intends to produce video and audio recordings with help from the UA’s library, which will digitize the information and make it available via the Web and add to the University’s repertoire of research and outreach efforts aimed at supporting Spanish-speaking populations as well as preserving and improving research on their histories and lives. The Arizona Hispanic Center of Excellence and Media, Democracy & Policy Initiative are among them.
While historians are quite familiar with the importance of what happened at Coral Way, very little is known about how the school’s curriculum was written, what teaching materials were used and how the teachers handled the dual-language schedule, how the students were organized, what their families wanted out of the program and other points necessary to understand the program’s scope and impact.
The team’s to-do list includes figuring those things out.
“One of the biggest questions in education these days is ‘How do you educate English language learners’? We need to look at models that worked,” said Richard Ruiz, a UA language, reaching and culture professor in the College of Education.
Shortly after Coral Way introduced its first class, the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 was passed, becoming the first federal legislation aimed at supporting bilingual students and English language learners.
“We know that it worked at Coral Way, but we do not know how it worked,” said Ruiz, also a known expert on the history of bilingual education in the United States.
Miami had seen a tremendous influx of Spanish-speaking immigrant and refugees as a result of the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and Operation Pedro Pan, an early 1960s program that allowed Cuban parents to send their children to the United States to avoid communist indoctrination, resulting in more than 14,000 children being sent to Miami.
The program offered a way for the Spanish-speakers to maintain their culture during their stay in the United States, which was not meant to be a permanent one.
“It wasn’t just about speaking or writing the language, it was about studying in both languages,” said de Farber, who was already speaking Spanish at home as a first language. “It was about making Spanish as equally important as English.”
Her mother, who was from Argentina, helped to keep de Farber from losing her heritage, just as the Coral Way teachers did, she said.
"After my mother passed, I loss connection with family in Argentina," she said. "It was through language – reading, writing and speaking – that I was able to rediscover those relatives. There is no price you can put on that."
Even today, she is able to interview former Coral Way teachers in English and Spanish.
"I could have lost my heritage, easily," she said. "I would be a completely different person."
That gets to another motive in the research project, which is toreverse the thinking that promoting bilingualism is a problematic approach, Ruiz said.
In much of the country, the word ‘bilingual’ has been expunged from policy. The perception is that bilingual education is ineffective, that it doesn’t work or that it creates a handicap maybe,” he said. “But it does work and has very good results.”
Though the documented history of what happened at Coral Way is virtually nowhere to be found, a number of the school’s graduates and former educators are still living.
Part of the research effort will be to track them down and interview the program's first students and their teachers, collect their photographs and any other documents they may have – an effort de Farber and Ruiz have already begun.
“We want to find out what the impact of going to the school had on adults 40 years later,” de Farber, who has already returned to Coral Way to sift through filed documents, letters and other paperwork dating back to 1960.
“We’ve discovered that information that has been written about the school is either incorrect in incomplete,” she said. “There is no documentation about what happened to us.”