When the newest members of the eighth grade arrive at at the end of this month to begin the new school year, they will see many changes, not only in their venue of building but in the fact that they will have new options before them that other classes will not, namely the choice of a new foreign language option: Portuguese.
“Portuguese is, depending on where you look, either the fifth most spoken language or sixth most spoken language in the world,” said at a small roundtable in the high school library on August 8. “Portuguese is a language that is spoken in all four corners of the world and certainly is a language that’s spoken in many of the most dynamic economies in the world. I think this is a wonderful opportunity not only to introduce the language to the community as a whole but certainly... it gives our kids here in Mineola a competitive edge.”
Mineola boasts a large Portuguese immigrant population as well as many residents of Portuguese descent, but the language is not an option approved by the New York State Education Department. Following discussions between Martins and superintendent Dr. Michael Nagler about the possibility of introducing the language to the school, it was decided to submit a request for a waiver from the state education department. Martins said he had spoken with Roger Tilles of the board of Regents about the waiver, which was provided, paving the way for Mineola to be the only school district in the state to offer the language.
Obtaining a waiver requires a request and a “realization on the part of the state education department that there can be a program in place that’s going to fill a need,” Martins said.
“We’ve been working towards this goal together, independently for the better part of the last two decades,” Paul Pereira, a at Mineola High School, said.
Both Pereira and Martins – who are of Portuguese descent – had been involved in a Portuguese mentoring program for young Portuguese-American students in the 90’s, serving on the site-based management team to improve the entire school community. Martins also served as former president of the Portuguese Civic Association while Pereira was also in charge of the Portuguese club and helped coordinate four exchanges with a secondary school in Portugal and Mineola.
It is estimated that one of every 6 graduates from Mineola High School is of Portuguese heritage, and about 3/4 of those list English as their primary language, meaning the community “is essentially assimilated,” Pereira said, adding that he believed it would be received well in those circles as a way to pass on the heritage from one generation to the next.
Nine countries have Portuguese as their official language and 34 list Portuguese as a “significant” language spoken in their borders, with the next World Cup and summer Olympics both being held in Brazil, one of the primary countries for the Portuguese language.
“Mineola High School is a very vibrant school community and part of that reason is the Portuguese community that we have here, the students and their families,” principal Ed Escobar said. “It adds to the flavor of Mineola High School. We can see this blossom into possibly a full-time program teaching, having five classes of Portuguese, at least.”
Mineola is not the first school district to be granted a waiver to offer a language not approved state-wide for its local community as Herricks currently offers Mandarin Chinese as an option for students.
“I think certainly it lends itself,” Martins said when asked it he saw a trend in districts requesting waivers for foreign languages spoken by a large portion of their local community. “I would say that the state education department should probably reevaluate the foreign languages it has as part of its curriculum and those options that are available to local school districts. Those are reflections of realities, not only of today’s world but of where the future is taking us. Portuguese, like Chinese will be part of the future world economy.”
The foreign languages currently offered at Mineola High School are Spanish, French, Italian and Latin. For the Portuguese class, the course would begin with one section at about 25 students in a traditional non-immersion setting. The incoming eighth grade is comprised of 190 students with about 40, or 20 percent, of Portuguese heritage.
“18 to 20 percent of the student body is Portuguese so of those 40 students in eighth grade, I certainly think we’ll find 25 kids who are interested in taking it, if not more,” Pereira said.
The option would be rolled out with 8th grade in the 2012-13 school year, with an additional grade added each following year.
“A child who enters the program in eighth grade now will have the opportunity to participate in the program for 5 years,” Martins said. “It prevents the realities of students leaving another language midstream to begin learning a new language when that really isn’t the intent here; the intent is to gain language proficiency in a foreign language.”
Although students may already have their schedules set up already, they would be informed via mail or e-mail of the new choice and would be given the opportunity to switch courses.
“The first couple of weeks of school, kids switch schedules all the time,” Pereira said.
There would not be any additional hirings for the course, which will be taught by Elsa Coehlo, a Mineola High School graduate who has taught foreign language at the school in grades 8-12 for the past 15 years including Spanish and French. Coehlo is also a first-generation born to Portuguese parents with Portuguese as her native language.
“As a student here, I remember hearing all over ‘why can’t we offer Portuguese, why can’t we take Portuguese?’ and the rule always was the state board doesn’t recognize Portuguese as a language so you couldn’t,” she said. “And 20 years down the line this is wonderful that this is happening and I’m excited.”
In order to build a course from scratch, Coehlo spent her time reaching out to administrators in schools who have Portuguese in their school in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Jersey via email for help with materials, curriculum and “just sitting at the computer and trying to do research,” she said.
“I think that’s a credit to the entire school community that you have two teachers of Portuguese descent who have remained in Mineola to teach and they’ve become an integral part of the school and the local community,” Escobar said, referring to Coehlo and Pereira.
“The world is getting smaller and smaller and our ability to communicate is critical,” Martins said. “Just as Herricks has been somewhat of a model to other school districts and a pilot to the school districts that look to offer other choices in languages, this may be a pilot and a model for other school districts to consider offering Portuguese even without the Portuguese dimension to its local community.”