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IN THE CLASSROOM

Black Children Saying Hola to Spanish Classes

Abrazar Spanish Language Academy's classes are aimed at African American kids. Parents cite academic and social benefits.

October 15, 2003|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Long before she stepped foot into a language class, 5-year-old Jada Hall was confident she could speak Spanish. When she was younger she sang a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday" in what she said was Spanish.

Actually what came out of her mouth back then was a lyrical mimicking of the language. What became clear, however, was just how much the child wanted to be able to speak the language of her playmates, her neighbors and "Plaza Sesamo" -- the Spanish version of "Sesame Street."

"I actually want her to speak and to know it fluently," said her mother, Rasheedah Anderson. "It's very profitable for her to know it. It's putting her in the race."

So Anderson signed her daughter up for Abrazar Spanish Language Academy, a program that specializes in teaching Spanish to African American children. The parents' decision to forgo ballet and music lessons, soccer and T-ball, speaks to a concern that exists among some non-Spanish speakers in Southern California: that their children will be shut out of jobs, other opportunities or friendships because they don't know Spanish -- the primary language, according to the U.S. Census, of nearly 38% of Los Angeles County.

"This is about preparing our children for the new economy and a new society, which is bilingual," said Carlene Davis, founder and director of Abrazar, which means to embrace. "This is also about the relationship between black and brown people. You have communities living together and living separately. That doesn't make for a strong community. Language is such a powerful unifier."

Such concerns have long pushed adults to fill seats of Spanish classes at community colleges and adult schools. Now parents are offering their children 5 to 9 years old a chance to learn, long before they can study it in public schools. And with good cause, both academically and socially.

"It's been proven time and time again: Students who learn a second language not only become fluent more quickly, but their accent is better the younger they are," said Kia Findrilakis-White, English language development coordinator at Crenshaw High School.

A major goal of Abrazar is promoting better understanding between Latinos and African Americans. In recent years, Los Angeles communities that once were predominantly African American have become mixed or predominantly Latino.

Trichette Roy, an Abrazar instructor, was introduced to the language as a child in Los Angeles and in San Antonio, Texas.

"I've lived primarily in Spanish-speaking communities so it's always been there," said Roy, who is African American.

Roy studied Spanish in college, spent a year teaching and learning in Mexico, and holds a bilingual teaching credential. Children who study a language learn more than words, she said. They also learn "respect, consideration and empathy."

A few observers challenged Davis' goal of teaching Spanish to African American children. Why not Swahili, Ibo or any other African language? Davis' response is firm. She is intensely proud of her culture, she says. Teaching kids to embrace another language and learn about another culture does not diminish the importance of their own.

And Spanish is not a foreign language for many people of African descent, said Roy, referring to the significant populations of black people in the Spanish-speaking world.

Abrazar grew out of Davis' own attempts to learn the language. Davis, who is Los Angeles' child care coordinator, grew up in the city and learned Spanish in high school.

Her goal had long been to travel to Mexico and sharpen her skills. But then the economy soured and she feared she might not have a job when she returned. So she stayed put and focused on helping kids.

On her own time she came up with the concept and received training and advice from Community Partners, a Los Angeles-based organization devoted to helping other groups improve Southern California's economic and social climate.

The Spanish sessions are funded by donations and fees. Some parents pay $75 for eight weeks of three-hour sessions. Some attend for free in arrangements with the host locations.

This summer the academy began operating at Nickerson Gardens housing project, Ascension Lutheran Elementary and Inglewood Avenue Pre-School.

On a Saturday morning at Inglewood Avenue Pre-School, the classroom is filled with music, familiar hits with pre-schoolers and kindergarteners singing in Spanish.

Instead of "good morning, good morning, good morning to you," the children sing "buenos dias, buenos dias, buenos dias a ti."

Their instructor, Carmen Moreno, a Guadelajara native, is determined to make sure these children learn and enjoy. "In Mexico, they don't make it fun," she said.

A game of bingo teaches them shapes -- circulo, triangulo, diamante. Coloring activities teach them words for body parts. With brightly colored cards of animals -- blue elephants and yellow lions -- Moreno reinforces their knowledge of colors.

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