Parents sit overnight for kids' bilingual program
Miami Herald
April 12, 2005

Matthew I. Pinzur

He got into the Grateful Dead, the Police and the Rolling Stones without waiting in line overnight, but to get into North Beach Elementary, Eric Sachs camped out.

''If you're in the loop, you know about this,'' said Sachs, one of nearly three dozen people who waited in line 20 hours on Sunday and Monday to ensure their children a coveted spot in the Miami Beach's school's bilingual education program.

Similar bilingual programs are offered at 68 other Miami-Dade elementary schools and are being expanded further, but none has quite the same community prestige -- or the same overnight lines.

North Beach boasts excellent academic credentials -- it has received an A grade from the state every year since 2000.

Only around 44 students can enroll in the bilingual classes, which split daily instruction between English and Spanish. The first-come, first-served policy has pushed neighborhood parents to a fervor even they concede is mad.

''I hope my kids appreciate it later,'' said Ruth Stein, who arrived Sunday morning to secure the first spot in line.

North Beach has had its bilingual program for 11 years. Students who start in kindergarten can stay in the program for all six years; enrollment at such an early age is crucial because so few spaces come open in later years.

Camping out began last year, when one or two zealous parents staked out space around dinnertime the night before. The word spread this year, and there was some chatter about lining up as early as Saturday.

''This year was almost comical,'' said Doug Swalina, No. 18 in line. "People were trolling the area, and within 15 minutes of the first people sitting down [on Sunday], it all started.''

His wife, Trici, came directly from her kids' swimming lessons -- still wearing her wet bathing suit -- to wait to register her 4-year-old daughter.

Neither she nor her husband speak Spanish, but they believe their children will need to be fluent to be successful in South Florida. Their son is in first grade in the program and can already count to 30 and sing several songs in Spanish.

''I'm going to take a course this summer so I can keep up with him,'' Trici Swalina said.

The bilingual education students are surrounded by both languages; posters in Lorena Sanchez's second-grade class show the Spanish words for days of the week, emotions and computer parts.

The school also has both an active PTA and a private fundraising group that pays for aides in nearly every class.

Teachers focus on hands-on activities. To celebrate poetry this week, police are closing streets around the school for students to write chalk poems.

''There's always something going on,'' said Sanchez, 23. "This is such a great school.''


By early afternoon Sunday, at least two dozen parents were in line, squatting in canvas beach chairs and thumbing through magazines. A psychedelic garden of umbrellas protected them from the weekend's blazing sun.

Rules emerged. An absence of 30 minutes was acceptable -- the nearest bathroom was in a CVS pharmacy down the street -- but roll was taken regularly to ensure no one left a chair to hold a spot.

A group of fathers watched the Masters golf tournament, powering what looked like a 14-inch color television through a Nissan Murano SUV, rabbit ears mounted to the hood.

Another dad, state Rep. Dan Gelber, tapped away on his Palm Treo pocket computer, writing an editorial about class-size laws.

''Parents shouldn't have to camp out,'' said Gelber, D-Miami Beach, whose daughter is in first grade in the bilingual program, and who was No. 13 in line to register his son for kindergarten. "Schools should provide enough of these programs for anyone who wants them.''

But the school does not analyze whether the bilingual students perform any better than their peers in the standard North Beach program, and parent Arthur Weissmann -- number 17 in line -- alluded to another reason so many parents spent the night.

''It has nothing to do with languages,'' he said. "It has to do with the cachet of having your kid in the program.''


The heat abated as the sun went down Sunday night. A couple of fathers jammed on their guitars in a sort of frat-house-meets-block-party groove.

The minivans and SUVs lining the street became high-end flophouses, their seats lowered or removed to make room for pillows and foam mattresses.

The night passed coolly and quietly, except for the 1 a.m. wake-up call from the school's lawn sprinklers. Dawn cracked around 6:30 with boxes of pastries and cups of coffee.

''Thanks for being so nice, so civilized, so much in order,'' said principal Aida Marrero, opening the school gates and allowing the parents to file into the auditorium.

One at a time, they turned in their forms and presented proof they live in North Beach's attendance zone: utility bills, home deeds, leases.

Most, if not all, will likely get the spots for their children, although it may be weeks until anything is certain.

New state caps on class size already forced Marrero to trim enrollment, and as many as 10 pre-kindergarten students could receive slots through a grandfathering policy.


As they teased themselves for spending nearly a day in line, some parents wondered if the school should switch to a lottery system.

''At this point, the single mother who had to work today is effectively precluded from having her child in the bilingual program,'' said Doug Swalina. "A lottery is certainly more fair.''

Marrero said she has discussed such a change with district administrators, but was unsure whether state law or School Board policy would allow it.

Complex lotteries are used for bilingual classes at magnet schools, such as Sunset Elementary in South Miami, but neighborhood schools like North Beach are first come, first served.

If the camp-outs continue, Marina Font Nores said she has a different solution for 2007, when she would need to register her next child.

She'll bring a Winnebago.