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St. Petersburg Times

Making English Come Alive In Learning


October 10, 2003
Copyright ©2003
St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.

The 36 Spanish-speaking first- and second-graders at DeSoto Elementary School were in for a treat.

On a recent Wednesday, three tutors, all juniors at the University of Tampa, had dressed up as storybook characters to read to them.

Second-grader Brenda Bragagnini, who moved here from Argentina, laughed at a story about Mrs. Wishy-Washy, who liked everything clean, even her farm animals.

"She washed all the animals because they got in the mud and then when she was all done, they got in the mud again,'' Brenda said in perfect English.

These children, who speak English as a second language, are paired with UT education students for a semesterlong learning experience. The younger students get one-on-one help with English skills, while the UT students get a jump on the state-required 300 hours of field experience for teacher certification.

Kristina Orlando, 20, dressed as a black cat named Fabian, and brought Hondo, a stuffed dog, to illustrate a story about a day in the life of a dog and cat. As she read, Orlando quizzed the children, asking what they thought would happen next.

"They really need those questions, especially as ESOL (English as a second language) students, to make sure they know what's going on,'' she said.

DeSoto Elementary is a working-class neighborhood school in Palmetto Beach surrounded by Port of Tampa and McKay Bay, just south of Ybor City. The city of Tampa recently built a skate park next door at DeSoto Park and a pool is in the works.

About 86 percent of the students are Latino and 94 percent qualify for reduced or free lunches. Despite the challenges, the school earned an A on the state report card last year and passed the federal no child left behind requirement.

The reason? Dedicated school staff, neighborhood donations and volunteers all pitch in to help students, said principal Manuel Duran. Even their parents get extra help at evening school sessions.

"It's true, our school is really like family,'' said Duran, who often spends his own money helping the students and their parents. Before the after school tutoring class, he provided the snacks.

In September, the tutors tested the children to assess their English skills. They prepare lesson plans under the guidance of teacher Barbara Hruska.

"I love that they get so much quality time with an adult.'' Hruska said. "It's so focused.''

The students began the after school tutoring program this year thanks to a grant that paid for puzzles, books and games. In the past, the UT juniors practiced the character readings in college classrooms, reserving field experience for later, Hruska said.

Tutors come for about two hours Mondays and Wednesdays.

The young students speak English at different levels. Josajandy Estefania, 7, who moved here from Mexico a few years ago, often translates for 7-year-old Rose Marie Benitez, who came from Puerto Rico last year.

"Josajandy is a big help,'' said tutor Erin Thorpe as the girls put together their favorite sea creature puzzle.

"I don't stop them from speaking Spanish, but I encourage Rose to speak English,'' Thorpe said. "I ask, "What did you say in English.'''

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