CLEARWATER — Something good is happening at High Point Elementary, but the experts can't quite explain it.
The school near St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport has one of Pinellas County's largest enrollments of students who are not fluent in English. Known in education circles as "English language learners" or ELL, they typically would be expected to lag as many as 30 percentage points behind peers who have spoken English all their lives, according to national data on standardized tests.
Yet the roughly 250 English language learners at High Point have kept pace — and in many areas outperformed — the mostly native English-speaking students at seven other Pinellas schools that are part of a major turnaround effort. The results are showing up in a recent series of tests designed to predict how students will do when they take the Florida Standards Assessments in math and reading language arts this spring.
English language learners make up more than a third of High Point's total enrollment of about 660 students, and about 80 percent of them are Hispanic.
"They're defying some national trends, which is pretty exciting," said Joyce Nutta, a world languages professor at the University of Central Florida who has spent two years developing teacher training methods at High Point through a $2.4 million federal grant.
High Point's F grade in 2015 landed the school in the district's "Transformation Zone," an initiative created last year to give additional support to the county's struggling elementary schools. Among them are five schools in south St. Petersburg that were among the worst in Florida.
All eight schools are under pressure to make state testing gains over the next few weeks. Each is deemed 100 percent economically disadvantaged, but none has as many English language learners as High Point.
Sandy Lane Elementary in Clearwater has about 40 English language learners. The other six schools besides High Point have just a handful.
Those schools have smaller overall populations, too, with three enrolling fewer than 400 students.
Sandy Lane and Maximo Elementary earned C grades in 2016. High Point received a D, as did Fairmount Park and Lakewood elementaries. The rest received Fs.
The High Point phenomenon shows up most in reading scores from this winter in grades three, four and five. The English language learners in those grades had median scores of 188, 196 and 205 respectively on a test known as Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP. Every other Transformation Zone school did worse, except for Maximo's third grade and Sandy Lane's fourth grade. Melrose had similar scores in third and fourth grade.
In math, High Point's English language learners performed just as well as their peers in the zone, however some grades' scores were stronger than other grades.
Where these ELL students lag is in the early grades — kindergarten, first and second. And the gap between them and students at the other schools is wider in math than in reading.
High Point principal Michael Feeney, who was transferred from Oldsmar Elementary this year, says the overall positive trends for ELL students are the result of his teachers' hard work and a full hour of reading every morning. Some teachers guide reading instruction in small groups of students. The children also read on an online program called Istation and answer comprehension questions about the passage they just read.
"I think that lays the groundwork for the entire day," Feeney said.
He said English language learners receive individual support for every subject, and the school works to staff classrooms with support professionals such as bilingual assistants.
Teachers, he said, are drilling down on how students perform on biweekly assessments so they can see where they might close the gap between younger and older students. Math is more challenging, he said, because it's more difficult for students to learn a complex subject while also learning a language.
"It's one thing to be able to speak the language," Feeney said. "It's another to comprehend it."
Presented with High Point's data, education experts from across the country struggled to pinpoint the reasons for the school's success and found themselves asking questions about its practices. All of them said the key factors are school climate, proper leadership and parental involvement.
"What's the quality of instruction? What's the quality that works at the school?" said John King, the former U.S. Secretary of Education under President Barack Obama. "It's a question of are the right practices in place."
Nutta, the UCF professor, said many of High Point's English language learners have come from another country or are born in the U.S. to primarily Spanish-speaking households and may be behind in their education.
"They are coming from backgrounds where they don't have education in their home language as they come into English medium instruction," she said.
As a result, High Point's teachers have changed their approach, with strategies that include tweaking their vocabulary in ways that better engage English language learners.
"Even in the time that I've been there, I've seen the teachers grow in their understanding of the cultural differences and similarities, and how that might affect students differences in performance and behavior," Nutta said.
David Murphey, a research fellow at the nonprofit research organization Child Trends, has studied how students who were once English language learners grew to be academically competitive with their native-speaking peers.
"There's some cognitive advantages associated with bilingualism," he said. "That could be part of what's going on here."
Steven Alvarez, an assistant professor of English at St. John's University, said the school's relationship with the community also could play a role in students' academic performance. "They have to be in touch with the … bilingual needs of the community," he said.
Another factor may be the immigrant experience, Murphey and Alvarez suggested.
"You have to assume that to even get to this country, you have to believe that these families have remarkable resources of will and persistence and dedication to survive," Murphey said. "There is a theory that immigrants are more likely to be resilient and (have) exceptional resources than the average."
Said Alvarez: "Sometimes there's a misconception that immigrant parents aren't involved in their children's education." An example of that is not being able to help with homework because of the language barrier. But some, he said, go out of their way to find after-school programs and tutors.
Julian Vasquez Heilig, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at California State University Sacramento, cautioned against comparing English language learners' performance on standardized tests to actual learning. In other words, Pinellas County's MAP tests may not tell the whole story.
"You can teach kids how to take tests better, but that doesn't mean it translates to learning," he said. "If it's measured by a test that's preparing you for the test, that's a different thing than kids finding long-term success."
Feeney, for one, is anxious to see how his students perform on the FSA in the coming days and weeks. State testing for grades three through five began Feb. 28 and continues through May 12.
"Sometimes, waiting to see our outcome, it causes stress," he said.
Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.
(Editor's note: This story has been edited to correct the 2016 school grade for High Point Elementary. A previous version reported the wrong grade.)