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The Politics Of Language: Daunting Challenges Await Those Who Arrive Unable To Communicate

By Leslie Postal and Tania deLuzuriaga | Sentinel Staff Writers

April 25, 2004
Copyright ©2004 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.


Thousands of Puerto Rican students are arriving in Florida unable to read, speak or write English well, moves that set them up for potential failure in an educational system that increasingly judges students by standardized test scores.

As Central Florida continues to attract more families from Puerto Rico, many local educators wish their counterparts on the island would do more to improve English instruction in their schools.

But English lessons in Puerto Rico are a complicated and sensitive issue -- knotted in the island's relationship with the mainland United States -- and changes have been slow to take hold.

If they don't improve their English skills, many of these students will struggle to compete in the classroom and, down the road, in the job market. There already are signs of trouble, here and in Puerto Rico:

*Puerto Rican students often enroll in Central Florida public schools knowing little more than a few English words, maybe colors or the days of the week.

*Despite years of required English lessons every day in island classrooms, only half of the public-school students in Puerto Rico last year scored at grade-level on their English tests.

*An average of only 14 percent of the students still learning English passed the reading section for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test last year in Central Florida. In most districts, a large number of those students are Puerto Ricans.

*In Orange and Osceola counties, where the bulk of the region's Puerto Rican families live, the high-school-graduation rate for students still learning English has been less than 50 percent in recent years, compared with 65 percent or more statewide for students overall.

Peer issues

Not knowing English doesn't keep many families from moving to Florida in search of better jobs and better educations for their children.


Those opportunities can be hard to grasp, however, for youngsters struggling to make sense of lessons in their new schools.

Elizabeth Rivera thought learning English would be a snap. After all, she'd had six years of English classes in Puerto Rico before her family moved to Orlando in July.

"Era facilisimo" -- it was so easy, she said.

But when she enrolled in the seventh grade at Stonewall Jackson Middle School in Orange County in August, she realized she didn't know English at all.

"When I came here, I was very confused," she said in Spanish. "I didn't understand anything, and I thought I'd never be able to learn."

School officials recognized her limited skills and put her in the school's "sheltered" English program, where she's slowly getting comfortable with the new language.

"Each day is better," she said. "In the end, I'm going to learn it completely."

Many Puerto Rican students now in Central Florida schools report similar experiences, saying their lessons in island schools did little to prepare them for life on the English-speaking mainland.

In Orange County, more than 23,000 students are getting help learning English; in Osceola County it is more than 10,600. Puerto Rican students now make up the largest group of such students, although districts can't provide exact numbers.

In the current era of education reform and accountability, that puts the students and their Florida public schools at risk.

Students must tackle the FCAT, a tough standardized test, within a few years of their arrival, while schools face increased scrutiny of how they teach youngsters who aren't fluent in English. Many Florida schools last year were tagged "in need of improvement" by the federal government because those students struggled.

"If they don't get English, their opportunities are limited," said Dalia Medina, director of multicultural education for Osceola County schools and a Puerto Rico native. "A monolingual child can't pass the FCAT, can't get a diploma."

Trying to help them is costly. Last school year Florida spent more than $837 million statewide educating non-English speaking students, according to the Florida Department of Education.

Those children also are more expensive to educate than English speakers. The Seminole County school district, for example, is spending about $5,603 this year for each child in kindergarten through third grade who doesn't speak English, but about $4,300 -- about $1,300 less -- for students who already speak the language.

Puerto Ricans have been coming to the mainland at a steady clip, mainly for economic reasons, and since the late 1970s Central Florida has been a top destination. The Puerto Rican population in the region grew by 158 percent between 1990 and 2000, U.S. census figures show.

Some of these new arrivals excel at school in Deltona or Kissimmee or Orlando, just as they did in their island towns of Carolina, Ponce or Humacao. But many more would do well, school officials say, if they had a better foundation in English.

Puerto Rico's public schools, by law, require that students take 50 minutes of English per day, but the classes aren't all taught by fluent English speakers. Even if the teacher knows the subject, students often get little practice outside of school.

"They teach grammar, reading, pronunciation," said Rebecca Millan, who received all her schooling, including college and graduate school, in Puerto Rico. "The only thing they miss is speaking English. You need to practice, but in Puerto Rico no one speaks English."

When Millan, a guidance counselor at Engelwood Elementary School in Orlando, moved here last year she realized she didn't speak English well enough to be understood. So she took a community-college course to beef up her skills.

'Totally lost' in school

Many Puerto Rican students on the island struggle even with basic English. Last year, only 50 percent of Puerto Rico's public-school students in grades three, six, eight and 11 scored at grade level on the English test given as part of the Prueba Puertorriqueña de Aprovachamiento Académico, Puerto Rico's series of annual standardized exams.

"They're probably doing as poor a job teaching English as they did in the 1950s," said Félix Matos Rodríguez, director of Puerto Rican studies at Hunter College, City University of New York.

Matos Rodríguez, the son of professional parents, learned English at a private school in San Juan. But most parents must rely on either church-run schools or poor-quality public ones, he said.

For the "vast majority" of Puerto Rican youngsters, Matos Rodríguez said, "if they migrate, they're going to have very little if any functional knowledge of English."

That can make it very scary to start at a new school in Florida.

Ibis Rivera, a teacher who oversees the English for Speakers of Other Languages program at Horizon Middle School near Kissimmee, listened to a girl from the island who said, in Spanish, that she felt "totally lost" in school.

In Puerto Rico, "she had an English class, but she didn't learn anything," Rivera said, translating for the 13-year-old. "The teacher would speak Spanish the whole time."

Rivera knows what it's like. As a child, she was thrust with little preparation into an English-only school when her family moved from Puerto Rico to Philadelphia, where they spent four years.

Since Rivera and her husband moved from Puerto Rico to Florida several years ago, she also has been helping her own children learn English.

The family's youngest, 13-year-old Axel, has had the easiest time, and the eighth-grader now speaks English with little trouble.

At home, he prefers typical American television fare, such as The Disney Channel. His three older sisters, all students at Poinciana High School, still watch the Spanish-language soap operas they enjoyed in Puerto Rico. That, Axel said, is why they haven't picked up English as fast as he has.

"In their mind, they think Spanish, Spanish, Spanish," he said.

Rivera said TV may be part of it, but her daughters also were older when the family moved to Florida. The oldest, a senior who came here in ninth grade, still needs to pass the FCAT to earn a high-school diploma. Like many students still learning English, she had little trouble with the math section but found the reading part tough.

She will find out next month how she did on her latest try. If she doesn't pass, she might have to pass a General Educational Development test before she can attend Valencia Community College.

"We made the right decision," Rivera said of moving to Florida. "We just have to get over this hump."

Struggling to catch up

Students still learning English, in Central Florida and throughout the state, often have trouble mastering the state's reading tests. Locally, an average of 14 percent could read as they should when they took the FCAT last year.

Although Florida doesn't keep test scores on Puerto Rican students specifically, officials say the bulk of students learning English in Central Florida are Hispanic -- many of them from Puerto Rico.

Experts say it takes at least five years for non-native speakers to master English well enough to tackle a test such as the FCAT. But after just two years they must take the standardized test that requires them, in a limited time, to read long passages in English, answer questions and write essays.

Beangely Rodríguez, a sixth-grader at Horizon, knew only a few words, such as dog, when she arrived two years ago.

"Sometimes people made fun of me," she said.

Today, her English is so much better that her mother pushes her to read an occasional book in Spanish, so she doesn't forget her first language.

Jean Carlos Irizarry remembers earning all A's and even a trophy in first grade at his Puerto Rican school. By second grade, he was in Orlando, and school was suddenly hard.

"Everybody knew English," he said, "and I didn't."

Now in sixth grade, Jean Carlos has learned English well enough to test out of his special language class at Stonewall Jackson in Orange County. But he, too, has been teased about his accent and has struggled to pass the reading FCAT exam.

"It was hard to read the words," he said. "I need to think them in Spanish."

Still, his mother, Juana García, is pleased. If the family had stayed in Puerto Rico, she said, Jean Carlos probably would be like her -- unable to speak English, despite years of classes. Instead, she said proudly, he can translate for her at Winn-Dixie or when she takes his baby brother to the doctor.

"He's learning two languages, and learning them well," García said in Spanish. "He can have a good profession."

Even after they learn some English, though, Puerto Rican students still face challenges.

Dropout rate

Graduation rates for Hispanics and for teens still learning English are low in Central Florida -- less than 45 percent in some places. Because there are no state or district statistics on Puerto Ricans alone, numbers on those two groups give the best view of how students from the island fare here.

Nationally, Hispanics have the highest high-school-dropout rate of major ethnic groups in America. About 35 percent of Puerto Rican adults living on the mainland are high-school dropouts, according to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans, which issued its final report last year.

Hispanics born outside the mainland United States and with limited English skills are most at risk of leaving school without a diploma, federal studies have found.

Some students do well here, though, thanks to some combination of intelligence, family support and better-than-average schools in Puerto Rico.

When Joanna Martínez moved to Kissimmee, she was 11 years old and angry that her parents had uprooted the family. She'd had some English at her Roman Catholic school in Bayamón, but she was too nervous to try it out when she first enrolled at Parkway Middle School.

Her silence didn't last. Martínez excelled in her ESOL class and was soon reading Nancy Drew novels in English.

At Gateway High, Martínez graduated near the top of her class in 1995 and, four years later, earned a diploma from the College of William and Mary in Virginia. She's now a graduate student at the University of Florida, scheduled to earn a master's degree from the business school next month.

She excelled because she threw herself into the English-speaking world, unlike her younger brother who spent too much time with other Spanish-speaking kids and too much time in ESOL classes that became a "crutch," she said.

But immersion in the language can be intimidating for students who speak with an accent and aren't always sure of their grammar.

At an age at which students take pains to fit in, it isn't surprising that many Spanish-speaking students tend to hang out with one another, lessening their opportunity to practice English. And though a student may appear to pick up English quickly, there's a big difference between what is spoken on the streets and what is taught in class.

"The social language, they pick up pretty fast," said Fernando Moreta, who teaches ESOL at Osceola High School in Kissimmee. "But they can't be an academic success in a social language."

Matthew Hay Brown and Hilda M. Perez of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

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