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Schools' Timid Leadership Fails Hispanic Kids

By Myriam Marquez

February 23, 2005
Copyright © 2005 ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

Excuse me, I'm having a Hispanic moment. I'm between pointing fingers in accusation and tossing my arms in exasperation. You know, we Latinos can't talk without using our hands.

I make light of the stereotype because frustration reigns. Orange County schools don't seem to take the needs of Hispanic students seriously. Or, for that matter, any of the students from some 174 countries learning English for the first time.

Another district audit of its English for Speakers of Other Languages programs has found the same old problems that previous state monitoring reports have found. Various schools didn't meet federal requirements to ensure that students receive "comprehensible" instruction. The state settled a 1990 lawsuit promising as much.

Superintendent Ron Blocker says he needs more than five compliance monitors. So why hasn't he found the money? Where's the urgency? He points to a slight improvement in reading scores to downplay problems.

Except the problems aren't minor. At some schools, bilingual "paraprofessionals" hired to help ESOL teachers in classrooms instead churn paper at copy machines or baby-sit kids in the cafeteria. (Hey, at least they don't do windows!) Basic things, like bilingual dictionaries and books in students' native language, are nowhere to be found, yet the district gets federal money for such. Talented kids who would be eligible for gifted programs don't get tested. The district translates a slew of policies to help the parents of ESOL students, yet some schools send reports in English only.

One in five children is learning English as a second language in Orange County. That's not a blip on the academic radar -- it's a tsunami of challenges swirling in our midst. Almost two-thirds of the 32,957 enrolled in ESOL are Spanish speakers.

I don't know any Hispanic parents who don't want their children to be proficient in English. There are very active Parent Leadership Council groups in most schools representing children of diverse backgrounds who are learning English. Yet administrators sometimes view those PLC groups as pesky troublemakers.

For a decade now -- a decade -- there's been a Superintendent's Hispanic Council of volunteer parents, businesspeople, teachers and others who are supposed to help Blocker figure out what to do. Good folks are spinning their wheels, going in circles.

What we have here is a vacuum in leadership. In 2001, I noted in a column about lagging academic achievement for Hispanic students that Blocker's "a nice guy but not known for innovative ideas or a 'do it now' attitude. More than a year on the job we're still waiting for him to be bold."

He's been on the job for five years now. Bold isn't in his vocabulary.

The Hispanic Council that advises Blocker has no political clout. Only the School Board can make Blocker accountable. It should appoint the council, get quarterly reports and demand results. I suggested that four years and a half-dozen failed ESOL audits ago.

School Board Chairman Tim Shea, who represents east Orange, the area with the largest group of ESOL students, wouldn't commit to the idea Tuesday. He says he has other priorities right now. That's leadership?

While the board sits on its hands, there are real kids behind those lousy FCAT scores. They're the ones who keep losing out -- and dropping out.

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