As a new semester of Spanish I started at North High School in January, Francisco Gonzalez, a sophomore, stood in front of 30 classmates holding a pair of orange soccer cleats.
Francisco played soccer all the time as a kid, he said: in the street, with his cousins in the house or on a team at the YMCA in Wichita. He didn’t get to play much on the team, he told the class, because he was always late.
“The coach would be mad at me,” Francisco said in Spanish. “We used to run a booth at the flea market, and my dad had to close the whole store. So we were always late to practices and even sometimes games.”
Even though Francisco has been formally studying Spanish for only a semester, his teacher, Andrea Brandt, knew he could handle speaking for several minutes, because the class was for “heritage speakers”: Francisco, like many of the students, had been speaking Spanish at home his entire life.
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North High has the biggest group of heritage speakers in Wichita – about half of the 600 students enrolled in Spanish at North are in classes targeted for people who are already fluent in the language. North High was the first to offer the fast-paced classes a decade ago and has the largest program in the city now.
A group of foreign-language teachers has been meeting across the district to discuss adding a special certificate to the diplomas of students who make it all the way through the program and can demonstrate mastery of two languages.
But not everyone makes it that far. Some students come into class expecting an easy A, Brandt said, but quickly discover they have their work cut out for them.
Although they may be bilingual, they are not yet “bi-literate,” she said, because they haven’t yet received formal instruction in Spanish. So they often still struggle with some combination of reading, writing and grammar.
After a recent quiz, one-third of Francisco’s classmates scored 100 percent. The topic was about the letters “B” and “V,” which can be tricky for someone who speaks Spanish but has not studied it in school; in Spanish, both letters often sound the same. So many students didn’t know which letter to use to spell words they have been using their whole lives.
Jennifer Parga, the chairwoman of the foreign language department at North, said she has a class of more than 30 students in Spanish IV and 11 students in AP Spanish.
“We teach them when they go to college, this Spanish skill, this language that you have, it’s worth something, you shouldn’t be ashamed of it, use it,” Brandt said. “A lot of time when they grow up, it’s you have to learn better English. That shouldn’t negate that what you have, it’s valuable.”
Even though the students have some background in Spanish, Brandt said, their experiences vary greatly.
Some were born in Mexico, some in the U.S. and a few elsewhere. Some students spent some time studying Spanish in elementary school before moving to the U.S. Others have never had any Spanish instruction at all. So the teachers test each student to see where to place them.
Even within each student’s family, the ability to speak Spanish can vary quite a bit. Alondra Lerma, a freshman, recently was with her mom when an English speaker needed to communicate with her about some new furniture. So Alondra translated. But she said her dad was skeptical and preferred that Alondra’s older sister do that translating.
That hurt her feelings. “My dad knows I can talk Spanish, I don’t know,” Alondra said. “I feel like he doesn’t believe I have enough knowledge of the language, he doesn’t trust my knowledge.”
Alondra said she confronted her dad about what happened later. “I told him, ‘Dad, I know how to speak Spanish, I’m not good at reading or writing it, but I’m good at translating in English,’ ” she said.
Alondra, like many of the students, say that they switch languages at home, depending on who is there. If a relative is visiting who speaks only Spanish, then they might speak only Spanish. If a friend is visiting, Alondra said, her dad will often try to chat with them in English.
Other students said their parents will speak to them in Spanish and they’ll respond in English. “My dad used to say, ‘If they talk to you in English, respond in English,’ ” Alondra said. “And if they talk to you in Spanish, respond in Spanish.”
Natalie Castillo, a senior who hopes to use her Spanish skills as a Wichita police officer after college, lived in Mexico when she was younger and learned some Spanish in school but became frustrated recently when she visited during the summer.
“I would listen, but there were words I wouldn’t get,” she said. “I was kind of frustrated because I speak Spanish, but I didn’t know what those stuff mean.”
Like Alondra, Jesus Ramirez, a freshman, said his parents automatically look to his older sister to translate first because they assume she knows more.
Jesus hopes that improving his Spanish will allow him to translate for his mom at the doctor’s office and to communicate better with uncles and grandparents who don’t speak English. And when he has children, he said, he wants them to learn Spanish as well.
“I feel bad for the people who don’t teach their kids Spanish,” he said.
The two Spanish tracks for beginners and heritage speakers merge again in Spanish IV, after two years of native Spanish and three years of Spanish for beginners. Even though the native speakers in Spanish IV are typically more fluent at speaking, Brandt said, the beginners have had an extra year of writing and grammar.
Jesus Ramirez just saw his mother apply for and receive her citizenship, he said.
Although some of the students said they would like to travel in the Spanish-speaking world one day, most said they plan to settle in Wichita near their families.
Not all of their parents are authorized to live in the U.S., but they are not worried about having to move to a Spanish-speaking country yet.
Many of Francisco’s classmates chose to study Spanish for typical reasons: They need at least two years of a language to be eligible for a scholarship or to get into the college of their choice.
At the end of the recent class, as they packed up, one of the students asked Brandt, the teacher, “Where are you from, Miss? I’m from Durango (Mexico).”
“I’m from Wichita, born and raised,” Brandt said without missing a beat.
Brandt is a third-generation Latina, but none of her five siblings speak Spanish. “(My parents) grew up in a time where being bilingual and speaking with an accent was not OK,” she said. So she didn’t really discover Spanish until later as a high school and college student.
A community member recently complained that North High posts its messages to parents in both English and Spanish, Brandt said. But she doesn’t get why so often people think that learning one language has to come at the expense of learning another.
“It’s knowledge, why not know more things? If you can know more than one, know more than one,” Brandt said. “If you can know three, why limit yourself to just one?”
The Wichita Eagle series Our Changing Schools is spending extra time in four Wichita public schools this year, including North High School, to show how the city’s schools are adapting to prepare a new generation of students.