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Teaching English To Puerto Ricans Is Put To Test… Private School Makes The Difference

Teaching English To Puerto Ricans Is Put To Test

In a state that relies on exams to measure school success, preparation is widely debated.

By Leslie Postal and Tania deLuzuriaga
Sentinel Staff Writers

April 26, 2004
Copyright © 2004 SO FL SUN-SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

The sign on the classroom door sums up things neatly: "Our English is on."

Inside the room at Horizon Middle School, near Kissimmee, teacher Nilda Correa coaxes and prods her seventh-graders to use the language, shaking her head when one questions her in Spanish.

"Oh, you speak English to me," she says.

In class, Correa pushes English as much as possible, but she does speak some Spanish to truly lost new arrivals and thumbs through a Russian dictionary to help her student from that country. She understands the plight of non-English-speaking students suddenly plopped into a Florida public school.

"They don't want to speak because they're embarrassed," Correa said. "It's very, very scary."

Her students are learning English thanks to a federal lawsuit that was settled nearly 14 years ago. To avoid a court battle, Florida signed a "consent decree" that requires the state's public schools to identify students who are not fluent English speakers and provide help from trained teachers.

Although most observers agree the arrangement has improved educational opportunities for many children, a debate continues about whether it does enough, how best to teach children who are not native English speakers and whether the agreement places an undue burden on some teachers.

Today, that decree takes on added significance as a growing number of Puerto Rican students arrive in Florida with poor English-language skills. Their struggle to become fluent in English puts them at an immediate disadvantage in a state that increasingly relies on testing to measure student performance.

Puerto Rico's public schools do not produce bilingual students, experts say, because of a lack of qualified teachers and, in part, because of a political atmosphere that does not totally embrace the teaching of English, especially among those who want to preserve the island's Spanish roots.

The lawsuit that launched Florida's classes in English for Speakers of Other Languages was filed on behalf of seven children, including a boy from Puerto Rico whose family had settled in Osceola County. It accused Florida schools of shortchanging youngsters who didn't know English and with violating previous court decisions that required meaningful instruction for students, no matter their level of English.

Back then, Puerto Rican immigrants -- and other children who didn't speak English -- sometimes received no special help when they enrolled in Florida's public schools.

They were left to learn English just as earlier island migrants did when they moved to the Northeast in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s: They had to "sink or swim" on their own.

Many Puerto Rican students struggled in New York City's public schools because they were unable to speak English, creating what educators then dubbed the "Puerto Rican problem," said Félix Matos Rodríguez, director of the center for Puerto Rican studies at Hunter College, City University of New York.

"They were being branded as dummies," Matos Rodríguez said. "They were being branded as sort of unteachable."

'Meaningful instruction'

But a landmark United States Supreme Court ruling in 1974, brought on behalf of Chinese youngsters in San Francisco, gave New York's Puerto Rican community the ammunition it needed. The ruling said schools had to provide students "meaningful instruction," not just give them a place in a classroom. The advocacy group Aspira went to court and eventually won bilingual-education programs for city students.

Aspira was one of several groups that also sued Florida, claiming Puerto Rican, Cuban and Haitian children, among others, were languishing because they weren't given any help learning English.

Some Florida districts did provide that help, but there was no uniform, statewide plan.

"It was very haphazard," said Bernardo Garcia, a former Florida Department of Education official who served as director of its office of multicultural student language education after the consent decree was signed.

"Many districts had really paid absolutely no attention to this."

The lawsuit, which the state agreed to settle in 1990, forced the issue and came into place as the number of students needing help with English began increasing dramatically in Florida. The number has nearly doubled in the past decade, with this year more than 288,000 students considered "limited English proficient," according to the state Education Department. That includes more than 41,500 students, many of them Puerto Rican, in the seven Central Florida school districts.

Because of the consent decree, these students must now be provided intensive English and "understandable" instruction in other subjects. That can be provided in an ESOL class that provides instruction in English but with lots of visual clues and other aids to help those learning the language or in a bilingual class that provides some instruction in students' native language.

"It was huge," said Tomasita Ortiz, director of the multilingual services for Orange County schools, of the legal decision.

Since then, school districts have focused mostly on complying with the legal requirements. Now, Ortiz said, they need to make sure those classes are top-notch and recognize that learning a second language well enough to succeed in it academically takes time.

'Remedial' approach

Three years ago, Ortiz studied test scores and realized students "prematurely exited" from ESOL classes didn't do as well on state tests. Hillsborough County, for example, kept students in ESOL about 4.5 years, or two years longer than Orange, and their students had better test scores.

Florida's approach to teaching non-English-speaking students has been "remedial in nature," said Virginia Collier, an education professor at George Mason University in Virginia.

The ESOL classes aim to get students into regular classes quickly, typically within three years, but by 11th grade those students are struggling and usually reading below grade level, said Collier, who has helped conduct a federal study that followed non-English-speaking students from kindergarten or first grade through high school.

Collier and other experts say students in bilingual programs do best over the long haul because, without some instruction in their native language, children lose out on important academic content while they're getting up to speed in English.

In her study, Collier found that all youngsters made similar progress during their first few years of school, but only those in the "developmental" bilingual program -- ones that aim to provide enriching academics in Spanish and English for at least six years -- sustained academic success and were able to read English at or above grade level by 11th grade, she said.

Students in programs such as Florida's ESOL classes had the lowest achievement level and faced the greatest risk of dropping out, the studies found.

Bilingual programs

Although bilingual education has been under fire politically in places -- and outlawed in both California and Massachusetts -- developmental bilingual programs have become an increasingly popular "quiet little model," Collier said, perhaps because they interest native-born American parents who want their children to learn Spanish.

Citing Collier's research, Orange has been moving to add more bilingual programs to its roster.

At Engelwood Elementary, for example, some Spanish-speaking students take social studies in Spanish and take English from a bilingual teacher, who can slip into Spanish as needed. The Orange school, tucked between the East-West Expressway and State Road 436, has a large population of students still learning English, most of them Puerto Rican.

Engelwood teacher Carlos Figueroa teaches English with a list of words -- rats, mats, math, hot, seems, on, teeth -- written on the board, a pointer and a fast-paced style that keeps his class hopping.

"What word?" he asked, pointing to the list on the board.

"Math!" his fourth-graders said.

"What word?"


He reminded his students not to trill their R's, as they do in Spanish. "We can get rid of that accent. We can make it very nice," he said.

But Figueroa speaks Spanish, too, whenever his students seem confused. And he will sometimes pull small groups together for a lesson, given in Spanish, if he thinks they don't understand the English-only version.

Engelwood Principal Oscar Aguirre supports his school's dual-language program, which ideally would help students become fluent and literate in both English and Spanish. But the pressure to do well on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test -- a pressure felt by both students and schools -- means Engelwood's staff cannot devote too much time to it.

It's hard to devote too much time to lessons in Spanish when teachers must get youngsters ready for FCAT.

"They should learn English as quickly as possible," Aguirre said. "We cannot spend a lot of time not teaching them English."

Maryari Barreiro, a sixth-grader at Stonewall Jackson Middle School in Orange, was desperate for a bilingual program when she moved here from Puerto Rico two years ago. The then-9-year-old had assumed her Florida school would be taught in Spanish, just like her school in Carolina, Puerto Rico. If her mother told her differently, she said, she didn't really pay attention.

When she started school, she was shocked and miserable to discover that everything was in English.

"I didn't understand anything," Maryari said. "I just got an F because I didn't know anything. I wish to be in a Spanish school."

After two months, she said, her mother had her transferred to McCoy Elementary School, which has bilingual classes, and Maryari was very relieved.

"It feels good because they talk Spanish," she said. Within six months, she was feeling better about her English, too.

Now, two years later, she's even more confident and hopes she can move out of ESOL classes at her middle school and into a regular language-arts class soon.

"I'm reading like other people," she said.

But not everyone thinks bilingual education is the answer.

ESOL advocacy

Carlota Mendoza-Iglesias is principal of Stonewall Jackson, which sits next door to Engelwood and also has a large population of Hispanic students still learning English. She thinks an ESOL program that provides children instruction in English serves them better than bilingual classes, as it immerses them in the language they need to learn.

"You show them a trash can, and you say 'trash can,' " she said.

Mendoza-Iglesias, a Venezuelan native, refused bilingual classes for her own children, who took ESOL classes instead and are now fluent in English and Spanish, she said. At her school, she wants students to move as quickly as possible from "sheltered" classes, where students might hear some Spanish, to ESOL classes and then into the regular curriculum.

The consent decree requires teachers to receive ESOL training, if they will have non-native English speakers in their classes. Though teachers have six years to complete the training -- up to 300 hours for language-arts teachers -- it isn't paid and usually occurs at night or during summer vacation. That can leave teachers, already certified by the state, unhappy about taking ESOL classes.

"Some don't understand why, after they hold a certificate that says they're qualified to teach, they have to prove again that they're qualified," said Gidden Nieves, an assistant principal at Osceola High School who teaches the ESOL teachers' classes.

But the classes do have merit, Nieves said, showing teachers how to incorporate gestures, visual aids and technology into their lessons.

"Teachers come out of college, and they're not prepared for that," he said. "Having an ESOL student is a totally different type of environment," he said. "There are so many things that they aren't aware of until they take the class."

Although a trained ESOL teacher can help, many say a teacher that speaks students' native language is the best resource for youngsters learning English.

A native of Bayamón, Puerto Rico, Nelson R. Placa and his family moved to Waukegan, Ill., when he was 15. Although he had the basics, Placa spent six months in Waukegan's ESOL program before his father decided he would learn English faster in regular classes and ordered him out of the program.

"Because I had teachers able to speak Spanish, I was more comfortable," said Placa, who now teaches ESOL at Osceola High School. "In some classes, no one spoke Spanish, and then you just had to do your best."

Today, the 31-year-old teacher uses the same techniques that his teachers used with him. If students ask questions in Spanish, Placa almost always responds in English.

Speaking Spanish is a big plus for his students, Placa said, but he stopped short of endorsing bilingual education, saying the quality of the programs vary depending on the teachers.

"If the teacher isn't 100 percent bilingual, it won't be beneficial," said Placa, who taught a bilingual class at the beginning of his career in Illinois. "If you have a hard time communicating in either language, the kids will miss out."

In recent years, some parents in Orange have complained that without bilingual classes their children are shortchanged when it comes to math, social studies and science, at least until their English skills improve.

Jose Fernandez was one who thought the district needed to do more to help its non-English speaking students, including his son.

"He was barely making it through the basic ESOL program. That was not enough for him," he said.

When the boy transferred to a school with a bilingual program, "that's when he really started learning," Fernandez said, adding that the sixth-grader now speaks and reads English fairly well.

Fernandez said the district has made significant improvements in the past few years but needs more programs that offer intensive help, particularly for high-school students who arrive as teenagers without any English skills.

Still, he said, "We've come along way."

His children and their Puerto Rican classmates have a far easier time than he did when he moved from Puerto Rico to New Jersey as a boy. He had only one way to learn English at the Roman Catholic school he attended.

"Sink or swim," Fernandez said. "So I decided to swim, but it was rough."

Residents born in Puerto Rico

Census numbers from 1990 and 2000 show a sharp increase in the number of island natives relocating to Central Florida during the decade.

Key: County 1990 - 2000

*Brevard 2,210 - 4,114

*Lake 297 - 1,373

*Orange 21,094 - 47,971

*Osceola 5,356 - 19,801

*Polk 1,817 - 5,673

*Seminole 6,299 - 10,082

*Volusia 3,493 - 7,062

Sources: 1990 and 2000 census

Private School Makes The Difference

But the better resources serve only Puerto Ricans who can afford them

By Matthew Hay Brown | Sentinel Staff Writer

April 26, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- In an air-conditioned classroom here in the tropics, Dorsía Smith's ninth-graders are bringing classical Greece to life.

Almost all of these students speak Spanish at home. But today, with Sophocles in hand, they are reading Oedipus the King -- and analyzing its characters, plot and themes -- in accent-free English.

It is an unusual sight in Puerto Rico, but typical at Saint John's School, where students study a full curriculum in what many here see as the language of opportunity.

In the public schools, limited time for English, a shortage of qualified instructors and politics all have hampered efforts to produce bilingual graduates.

For families with means -- costs can exceed $10,000 annually -- private schools such as Saint John's offer a powerful alternative.

About three dozen such schools on the island teach entirely or largely in English. Parents may choose among a broad range, from American-style prep schools to church-affiliated colegios.

After years studying math, science and history in English, students graduate fully bilingual. Many head for college in the United States.

"It's the combination of a good education with the English education that puts you ahead," says Miguel Soto Class, executive director of the independent Center for the New Economy in San Juan. "That definitely gives you a huge advantage over everybody else."

The dearth of comparable programs in the public schools reflects and perpetuates the divide between the island's haves and its have-nots.

"I don't think that's a good thing," says Saint John's senior Stephanie Bejar, president of the student council. "There definitely is a huge problem when you look at language as it is taught from private schools to public schools."

Amílcar Antonio Barreto, author of The Politics of Language in Puerto Rico, says private schools on the island enjoy a freedom to teach English that is absent in the public schools.

"With a private school, it's always a matter of parental choice. It's not a governmental decision that's being imposed on you," says Barreto, a professor of political science and Latino studies at Northeastern University in Boston.

On a practical level, he adds, "It's one thing to deal with a private school system, where you deal with a very small percentage of teachers who could adequately teach in English. Trying to generalize from that to the larger population would be an absolute disaster, just because of the lack of teachers able to teach the various subjects."

Critical-thinking skills

Located on a compact campus a block from the Atlantic Ocean in the Condado section of San Juan, Saint John's School buzzes with the energy of 750 students.

Smith's ninth-graders have arrived at the scene in which the oracle tries to tell Oedipus that it was he who killed King Laius. Then Smith interrupts.

"Are you listening to what's happening here?" she prods. "This whole play is about how you can't escape fate. We're going to see that in Romeo and Juliet as well."

"And The Mayor of Casterbridge?" Paulina Pagán asks.

Smith is pleased.

"Yes, that's very good thinking," she says. "Comparative thinking."

Pre-kindergarten teacher Larimar Gallardo is asking her 4-year-olds to name words that begin with the letter S. Students in Yolanda Adames' second-grade class are taking turns reading Wong Herbert Yee's Mrs. Brown Went to Town. Jacqui Kelly's eighth-graders are parsing a newspaper story about Bill Gates.

"The basic focus here is critical-thinking skills," Kelly, who has taught for 35 years in Massachusetts and Puerto Rico, says after class. "I don't want them to regurgitate exactly what I've said to them. That's why I ask so many questions."

Ivy League material

Members of the class of 2003 were accepted at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford and Massachusetts Institute of Technology; one was a Presidential Scholar, and two were National Merit Scholars.

"I think we do have a special niche here," Headmaster Barry Farnham says. "Because we're dealing with a more selective student population, our success rate is going to be different."

Pablo Rivera Ortíz, the undersecretary of education for academic affairs, echoes Farnham.

"There is no comparison," he says. "The population that goes to those schools are from the upper economic levels of Puerto Rico. They have access to travel, computers, books, different opportunities so they can increase their domain of the language.

"If you give the same opportunities that those students have in the private schools in the public schools, the students can learn."

The irony, Barreto says, is that the officials who debate language instruction in the public schools seem to have found more common ground in their choices for their own families.

"Most of the political and economic elite of Puerto Rico, regardless of their ideological orientation, do send their kids to private schools that use English as a language of instruction or as the only language of instruction," he says. "The policy really is impacting the middle and lower classes more than any other segment of society, because the elite already do speak it."

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