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New Rules On English Fuel Debate In Florida Schools…As A Second Language, Learning Words To Open Doors

New Rules On English Fuel Debate In Florida Schools

By Dave Weber | Sentinel Staff Writer

February 20, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

Thousands of Hispanic students who sit down to take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test next month won't have a chance of passing.

That's because they don't speak English well enough to demonstrate whether they can read, do math or understand science.

And writing? Forget it.

Students whose native tongue is Spanish, Haitian-Creole, French, Portuguese or any of the 207 languages immigrant children bring to Florida schools all are in the same boat.

"We put tests in front of them that they don't even understand," said Marjorie Murray, director of special projects for Seminole County schools, who is among educators who disagree with the practice.

Federal education officials Thursday announced a pair of policy changes they said would give schools more flexibility in measuring the progress of students with limited English skills. The revisions mean that many U.S. school districts may find it easier to meet their yearly progress goals and avoid federal penalties imposed by the No Child Left Behind Act, officials said.

Under the first change, reading and writing tests for students enrolled less than a year will be optional rather than mandatory. But because those students will be tested on their knowledge of the language and also will take mathematics tests, they will count toward the law's requirement that 95 percent of a school's students be tested.

The second change will allow schools to count students as "limited English proficient" for two years after they are reclassified as fluent English speakers, enabling schools to show progress in measuring improvement of language skills.

But critics minimized the impact of the rule changes because they do not call for testing students in their native language -- something Florida officials refuse to do, and they said a year or two of learning English is not enough to enable an immigrant student to master a written test.

Patricia Loera, legislative director of the National Association of Bilingual Educators, said native-language testing is a larger issue, one that the federal and state governments continue to downplay. Spanish is the language of the bulk of students who don't speak English, she said, and a Spanish-language test would solve much of the concern.

The FCAT will be given across Florida on March 1 to 12, measuring reading and math skills of children in grades 3 through 10. Students in grades five, eight and 10 also will take science tests. The FCAT writing test was given in mid-February.

Students whose native language is not English but have been in Florida schools a year or more are required to take the FCAT, although some counties such as Lake and Seminole give first-year students the test as well.

Educators say it takes up to seven years for a child to learn English well enough to face the test. That puts students who don't speak English at a disastrous disadvantage in the high-stakes FCAT, they say.

Students who get low scores can be retained in third grade or denied a high-school diploma. Others get ego-deflating failing marks on the annual big test.

Last year on the FCAT, 69 percent of third- through 10th-grade students whose native language was not English failed the reading portion of the test. In part, because they could not understand the questions, 51 percent failed the math section.

By comparison, among all students tested 29 percent failed reading and 23 percent failed math.

On the crucial third-grade reading test, 54 percent of those with limited English failed. Only 11 percent passed the 10th-grade reading test required for graduation.

"We should be measuring the knowledge of the student," said Evelyn Rivera, chairman of the Parent Leadership Council of Orange County, a Hispanic advocacy group. "We are measuring their English language skills."

A provision in President Bush's No Child Left Behind education reform legislation says state accountability systems -- like Florida's FCAT -- should test students in their native language. A handful of states, including Texas and Colorado, offer Spanish versions of their state tests at certain grade levels.

But Florida officials say they have no intention of offering the FCAT in anything but English. It doesn't matter what children know in another language if they can't demonstrate that knowledge in English, state education officials say.

"The state wants to know if it's able to award a high-school diploma, which means does the student know English -- not Spanish or Portuguese or Chinese," said Cornelia Orr, testing director for the state.

The federal law does not require state tests to be given in native languages, but suggests they be offered "where practicable."

State officials say native-language testing is not "practicable" here because so many second languages exist.

But others say a Spanish language test would be a good starting point. Hispanic students now make up 22 percent of Florida's public-school population, and Spanish is the native language of 71 percent of students enrolled in special classes for those who do not speak English, according to state reports.

Whether students should be tested in their native languages is a growing issue in Florida, with its increasingly diverse school population. Last year, 10 percent of elementary-school students and 5 percent of middle- and high-school students were classified as Limited English Proficient, a state and federal designation for students whose native language is not English.

The challenge, educators say, is to find out what students -- particularly the older ones -- already have learned.

"Testing in their native language is going to give a more accurate assessment of what a child knows about the subject matter," said Ron Pinnell, a director of secondary education for Seminole County schools. "Can they read? In English, maybe not. But are they fluent in their own language?"

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.

English As A Second Language

Learning Words To Open Doors


February 9, 2004
Copyright © 2004 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.

On recent chilly January nights, they pulled their windbreakers and sweaters close. They trickled into makeshift classrooms and settled into chairs.

In their countries, many wore neckties and suits to work; they were lawyers, bankers or computer technicians. Some commanded windowed offices with spectacular views.

Here, they come to class from jobs at Sam's Club and construction sites, in smudged sweatpants and blue jeans.

They come to further the dreams that brought them to Pasco County, to master the one thing that stands in their way: English.

"I want to learn more English to advance my career,'' Zoleidy Mejia, a 30-year-old accountant from Venezuela, said in Spanish.

Mejia is one of 50 students at new adult English classes offered this year in Land O'Lakes and Wesley Chapel by the Pasco County School District.

The students come from Colombia, Venezuela, Peru and Puerto Rico, as well as Mexico, Cuba and Central America. Many are fleeing economic or political crises.

Why do they come to Pasco? The same reason as those who move from Tampa or St. Petersburg.

"We wanted to buy a house in St. Petersburg, but it was very expensive,'' explained Mejia, who is in the advanced night English classes at Wesley Chapel High School.

"It's more affordable here, and close to the schools,'' she said of their new $150,000 home. For that price, Mejia, her husband and their two young sons share three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a two-car garage in Chapel Pines. Five other families from Venezuela live in the neighborhood as well, she said.

Her husband, a computer engineer in Venezuela, now prepares income tax returns for H&R Block in Tampa. They moved to St. Petersburg to be near their family. But when it came to buying a house, Pasco was where they wanted to be.

"Bien tranquilo,'' she added. Nice and calm.

Growing needs

The Pasco County School District decided to offer the English and citizenship classes in Central Pasco late last year as the numbers of Hispanic residents surged.

"We've always offered them at Moore-Mickens (Education Center) in east Pasco,'' said Carolyn Allen, supervisor of adult and community education for the school district. Those classes predominantly assisted the Mexican farm workers living around Dade City.

"But it's just been within the last year that we've been getting phone calls saying, "We live in the middle part (of the county), can we get something going?'''

The money for the night adult English classes comes from a federal grant for workforce education programs and adult education courses, Allen said.

The district saw the need for new classes in central Pasco as residents from Latin America moved in. Gabriel Santos at AmeriCorps Vista helped spread the news about the classes. The school district distributed fliers. They sent word home with children in ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes for their parents.

Pasco's Hispanic population more than doubled in the decade leading up to the 2000 Census, going from 9,309 to 19,603.

Since then, it has continued to soar. Updated Census figures released last fall showed that Pasco County saw the biggest percentage increase of Hispanic residents in the Tampa Bay region between 2000 and 2002. The population climbed from 20,081 to 24,354, or 21.3 percent.

Some of the South American families settling here said they chose to bypass Miami, where they feared their children never would learn English.

"(They know) the only way they're going to make it in America,'' Allen said, "is to learn and use the language.''

From cannot to can

Christy Rhodes, a perky auburn-haired teacher dressed in black sweater and slacks, tried out an important cultural pastime with her students on a recent night.

"This weekend, there is a big championship for . . .,'' she said, tapping the word "football'' written on a large white sheet of paper.

"What is it called?'' she asked.

"Superbawl,'' a student yelled out.

Rhodes explained that the game known as football in their countries is called soccer here. An American football is actually thrown, not kicked.

Rhodes' students - a few men and a gathering of women, many wearing clips to hold back long dark hair - sat around an oblong table. Handwritten nameplates introduced Erika, Veronica, Martha.

Lady, the resident tabby cat, circled the chairs in a conference room at the Baldomero Lopez Veterans' Nursing Home in Land O'Lakes.

The nursing home offered to hold the class, which originally started in January at Land O'Lakes High School, to make it more convenient for some of its employees to attend.

Several students walk in still wearing yellow and blue nursing assistant scrubs. Rhodes tells everyone to find three classmates and ask each five questions on whether they can drive a car, run five miles, cook Chinese food, speak three languages or play football.

The point: to teach the nuances of "can,'' "can't,'' and "cannot.''

"Puedes . . . manejar?'' one woman whispered hesitantly to another, trying to guess the meaning of "drive.''

To assist, Rhodes grabbed an imaginary steering wheel and wiggled her arms.

Like the Wesley Chapel class, taught by Rosalinda Meza-Harris, this one in Land O'Lakes holds about two dozen adults. Both meet every Tuesday and Thursday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Rhodes also teaches adult English classes at Marchman Technical Education Center in New Port Richey. Those students come from Bosnia, Sudan, Vietnam. Many are clients of World Relief's refugee resettlement program.

But these central Pasco residents came on their own. Their reasons for moving to Pasco are familiar.

"I think people chose Pasco because there are lower taxes,'' said 36-year-old Maria Moreno.

Word help

Moreno, a former lawyer from Colombia, now lives in Lutz with her husband, a Verizon representative, and their two children.

They moved to Pasco from Tampa for "a better life and work,'' said Moreno, wearing an orange blouse and blue jeans.

"There are good sports that my children can play and possibly I can get a good job,'' she said in English outside of class.

After the family moved to Tampa several years ago, Moreno worked as a human resources assistant at the West Shore Hilton. She took classes at Brewster Technical School in Tampa, hoping to get back to law. But teachers pushed her toward tourism, because of her lack of English proficiency and fluency in Spanish.

"As immigrant people, you have to start to work where you can get a job,'' she said.

But the couple didn't make enough money for her to continue studying. She put her career on hold to focus on her children.

"When you have a family, you have priorities,'' she said.

She still dreams of returning to the courtroom. For that, she needs to learn English.

Swallowing pride

Until they do, students learn deeper lessons beyond conjugation. They learn to wear smocks and swallow their pride when younger bosses with less education condescend.

They learn to smile when cleaning the slop off other people's plates, when picking up dirty clothes and scrubbing toilets.

"My first job in the United States was as a maid,'' said Maria Martinez, 38, a former computer technician for large companies in Colombia. "For me, it was frustrating.''

Martinez now is a cashier at Sam's Club. She, her husband and their three children moved to Land O'Lakes about six months ago after three years in New York.

They left Colombia's problems behind for a better life in the United States. But the big city seemed no place to raise children. They found Pasco on the Internet and packed their bags.

"I like a safe place for my children, and quiet, too,'' Martinez said during a break from the Land O'Lakes class. Her husband, a computer hardware technician, now drives a truck.

She endures the cashier's job but longs to work in computers again.

Miguel Bohorquez, 36, remembers his nice office with a computer in Colombia, where he was a bank employee.

"I wore a tie, very elegant,'' he said outside of class, dressed in the white scrubs of a certified nursing assistant. "But here . . . .''

He shrugged, smiling slightly, before recalling his first jobs in the United States: a busboy, a housekeeping supervisor and now a staffer at the nursing home.

He likes his current job and hopes to become a paramedic.

But first, English.

"It's very important (in order) to get a better job.''

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