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South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Making The Connection
By Lourdes Rodriguez-Florido
August 24, 2003
Rebeca Montaner knows what it's like to be a foreign student in America. When the Pembroke Pines Charter High School senior moved here from Venezuela seven years ago, she felt totally lost in school. The feeling lasted a long time.
"One comes here, and since you don't understand things as easily as you do in you own language you can feel dumb or incapacitated," said Montaner, 17, of Weston. "I cried every day because of that, because I felt dumb."
Now, as a student representative with Project Connection, Montaner helps other foreign students learn what they need to know to survive in Broward County's public school system.
Project Connection, a federally financed program operated by the school system, offers immigrant families a variety of services.
For many foreign students and their parents, the support can be as simple as someone explaining the significance of the acronyms GPA (grade point average) and AP (advanced placement), or as complex as preparing for the FCAT with the additional challenge of a language handicap.
Montaner is a member of Project Connection's ESOL Leadership Council, in which parents and students enrolled in the school system's English for Speakers of Other Languages program assist the school district in assessing the needs of students who have limited English skills.
The project's staff is made up of eight people, including an executive director, a specialist in the bilingual outreach office, two bilingual resource teachers, and four community liaisons who speak Haitian-Creole, Spanish and Portuguese.
During the last school year, more than 10,000 people were helped by Project Outreach.
Yvette Fournier Fernandez, the specialist with the bilingual outreach office, said the program is necessary because in other countries parents do not have to get as involved as they do here to ensure a child's success in school.
"What's expected culturally from other countries when it comes to a child's education is not what's expected here," she said. "You drop them off and the schools [in other countries] do everything."
But here parents are expected to get involved with everything from helping their child prepare for the FCAT to going to PTA meetings and pushing for advanced academic level classes during the high school years.
That can seem overwhelming for people who are struggling with language problems, Fournier Fernandez said.
"They are in a process of learning a language, and it's not easy to learn another language,'' she said. "You don't do that overnight."
So Project Connection offers a place where families can turn for help.
Clara Foglia of Coral Springs said she found the help invaluable after she moved from Puerto Rico four years ago. At the suggestion of her then-sixth-grade daughter's ESOL teacher, she attended the annual parent institute conducted by the project.
"It makes your life easier," she said. "As soon as you understand the school system you can communicate better with the teacher and help your children."
Foglia said it's especially important for the parents of high school students to understand the placement tracks for honors and advanced placement classes because that can affect their child's college possibilities. The school system, she said, is huge and can be difficult to understand, especially with a language barrier.
"You have to take a strong stance in what you want and what your child wants," she said.
Fournier Fernandez, a lawyer who was born in Puerto Rico, initially became a school activist after she moved to Broward County and saw some of the issues faced not only by her three daughters, but by all students who speak a foreign language.
"I'll never forget the first time with my little one, that a principal said, `I'll accept her, but only if you promise only to speak English to her,'" she said.
Fournier Fernandez, who believes in the value of bilingualism, found that concept distasteful.
She believes that the school system can work on behalf of all students while still respecting their cultures.
For more information about Project Connection, call 954-712-1945.