Language barrier a big hurdle
Orlando Sentinel
January 29, 2006

At Wahneta Elementary, nearly 40% of students speak limited English.  Teachers must work hard to prepare for the FCAT.

by Kelly Griffith


The little boy showed up for school after the winter break at Principal Victor Duncan's desk unable to say "hello" in English. In two years, he'll be expected to take the FCAT.
His second day in school, he was in a regular third-grade class at
Wahneta Elementary School, where teacher Kim Schellenberger instructs students in myriad topics in English. Like most teachers in Central Florida, she does not speak Spanish.

After two years, the boy is expected to pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test at his grade level in English, and his score will count toward the elementary school's overall "grade," the measure often used to judge how well Duncan and Schellenberger are doing their jobs.

The state of Florida mandates that Spanish-speaking children take the test in English by their second year in school.

"Do I worry about it? Yes, I worry about it," Duncan said.
If such a predicament isn't already facing an elementary-school
principal in Florida, it's probably not far away.

In 1990, 144,424 Hispanics lived in the seven-county Central Florida
region. In 2004, that figure was 464,122 and growing.

More than 23 percent of people in the United States primarily speak a language other than English, mostly Spanish, in their homes, according to a 2000 U.S. census study.

But a week after showing up to class, the Polk County boy aces math flashcards with a Spanish-speaking classmate. He likes this game, as this is the one subject in which everyone basically speaks the same language.. Otherwise, he often asks classmates for help. Fortunately, many of them at Wahneta also speak Spanish, so the boy has plenty of people to ask.

"Research shows the best way is for them to be immersed," Duncan said of young Spanish speakers being in the English-speaking setting.

In Orange County, where efforts to reach such kids were shifted four years ago to rely more on long-term research-based models, the moves seem encouraging, said Tomasita Ortiz, director of multilingual services for Orange County Public Schools.

Orange uses a three-pronged approach, giving parents of children who speak other languages the option of having them instructed in the native language, trained by a teacher in the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program or clustered with children who speak their language under one teacher -- all efforts that can help support their native tongue.

"There's more interest in offering support in the native language,"
Ortiz said. "It helps transfer what they bring with them in the native
language. The more support for the native language, the better they will do in the high-stakes tests."

School in the trenches

If ever a school was at the front lines in the struggle with language
barriers and poverty, it is Wahneta Elementary, a 605-student school nestled in the mostly Hispanic community of Wahneta, a tightknit cluster of homes and small businesses in rural east-central Polk County, where the citrus industry has given jobs to many of the students' parents.

The school is considered one of the few "community schools" left in the district, where only three buses serve the student body and most kids either walk or ride bikes. Most who attend are poor -- more than 93 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch -- and nearly 40 percent have limited English skills.

Though the state no longer tracks "mobility" -- the coming and going of students -- the way it once did, Duncan said a "fair number" of the
children may leave school for up to a month at Christmastime to return to Mexico to visit family, a tradition that can slow education's
progress when they return. Others may leave to go to another school only to return to Wahneta later.

Research shows such coming and going puts a strain on teachers. By sixth grade, even stable students in a school with many mobile students could fall behind about half the year.

Wahneta dropped from a B grade last year to a D this year.

"We don't want to punish schools, but we have to be accountable to teach students where they are and make sure they make progress," said Sherrie Nickell, associate superintendent of Polk district schools. "What we look at is: Are they making adequate yearly progress?"

When the new grades were released, though, a devastated Duncan vowed the school would do better.
"There aren't any harder-working teachers in this district," he said.

A leader who believes

He is convinced on the basis of early indications that many things he has implemented are working. For example, his staff has become expert at analyzing test-score data. What was once a hold-your-breath-and-hope-for-the-best approach has become a skilled
exercise in data collection and analysis.

Duncan receives weekly reports on each student's progress on certain key milestones, for instance. If a child surpasses a milestone, he praises the student with a miniature candy bar and a good word.

"That might not seem like a big thing in a more affluent school, but
here, where there aren't many convenience stores, that's a big deal," he said.

For the children who don't speak English well, the test data is used the same way: pointing out precisely what they do and do not understand.  Bilingual para-educators and the school's ESOL teacher are then able to target those children's needs specifically. They get extra help daily in addition to their time spent in the regular classroom.

Test results released in December are encouraging: Ninety percent of Wahneta's teachers saw improvement in their students between the first and second assessment tests of the year.

Work has never been more individualized for all students, Assistant
Principal Lisa Myers said, with weaknesses constantly being pointed out and children grouped or clustered as needed for instruction instead of entire classes being treated as a herd.

Duncan also hopes the school can become one of the first in the district to offer dual-language programming, possibly as early as this year, which means offering classes in Spanish and English to all children.

Studies consistently show that developing native-language skills -- the language a child thinks in -- is vital to academic success. The process is touted by the National Association of Bilingual Education, a professional organization with more than 20,000 bilingual educators.

Duncan, meanwhile, works on his own Spanish, asking the kids a question in their native tongue, or answering them with an espaņol quip. He gets a smile from the Mexican boy.

"We know what we are doing is the right thing for these kids," Duncan said. "We want them to have chances in life, and we know they won't have it if they can't read and write and do math. They have to do that. I love it here, and all we can do is the best we can. That's what we are doing."

Kelly Griffith can be reached at 863-422-5908 or