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ESOL interns at Blanton: 'an asset beyond words'

USF intern Myhanh Ton, born in Vietnam, works with five fourth-graders in Cristana Carlton’s class. She is one of seven interns at Blanton.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

USF intern Myhanh Ton, born in Vietnam, works with five fourth-graders in Cristana Carlton’s class. She is one of seven interns at Blanton.

Perched on the edge of a kid-sized chair, the young woman reads slowly and oh so patiently from a giant picture book, punctuating each word with her left index finger.

"We. Are. Going. On. A. Picnic."

Focusing on one of three kindergarteners sitting across from her, she asks: "Alexander, what kind of food are they taking on the picnic?"

"Apples," Alexander says.

"Can you show me the apples?" she asks.

The child, flushed with excitement, lunges toward the book and points.

"And what is this?"

"A dog," Alexander says.

"What does the dog have in its mouth?"

"A ball."

The exchange may seem like a small victory, but Alexander Flores spoke little English when he arrived at Blanton Elementary in August. The 5-year-old still sometimes substitutes a Spanish word for an English word — on this morning, uvas for grapes. But he has come a long way, thanks in part to University of South Florida St. Petersburg education major Katie Crawford.

Crawford, 22, is among seven USF students who spend one day a week at Blanton working with children like Alexander, who speak English as a second language. In return, they're earning credit toward their English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL, certification.

Such internships are not unusual throughout Pinellas County, but the concentration of USF students at Blanton this year is a deliberate effort to gain resources at a school struggling under the weight of a huge ESOL population.

So far, the partnership is not only benefiting the children.

"At some schools, you just sit there and don't do anything," said Crawford, who will graduate in May. "This program gives us the experience we might not get at another school."

• • •

Blanton principal Debi Turner predicted last spring that the district's new student assignment plan, which pushed her school's boundary to Park Boulevard, would increase her ESOL population. Still, she was surprised when 15 Vietnamese kindergarteners landed on her doorstep.

The percentage of Asian children at Blanton rose to 9 percent, more than twice the district average. Meanwhile, the school's Hispanic population jumped to 22 percent, compared to 9 percent districtwide.

"I knew all those USF students were wandering around out there like nomads," Turner said. "I thought, why don't we welcome them in?"

She contacted Mildred Pioli, an adjunct professor in USF's College of Education who also teaches at High Point Elementary. Together, they concocted a plan that would funnel more ESOL interns to Blanton.

Deputy superintendent Harry Brown describes the Blanton-USF partnership as an example of "entrepreneurial spirit" launched at a time when the district is hamstrung to provide additional resources despite a school's challenges.

"Blanton has an extraordinary leadership team focused on goals, outcomes and accountability," Brown said. "It's not just a warm and fuzzy, sit-around-the-campfire feeling."

Such dedication to student achievement is what makes Blanton a great place for future teachers, said Bonnie Braun, internship coordinator at USF. The interns get a chance to test their theoretical knowledge in a hands-on setting while learning how to be part of a team.

"They see folks who are so enthusiastic about what they're doing," Braun said. "It's a great relationship."

• • •

The state Department of Education began requiring teachers to earn an ESOL endorsement in 1990. Florida's public universities changed their models so that by 2004, every elementary teacher who graduated had to be able to show eligibility for ESOL certification. Part of the requirement involves spending time in an elementary school classroom working with ESOL students.

As the Pinellas County School District becomes more multicultural, there will be an increased need for teachers who can work with children who speak English as a second language, said Christa Kirby, director of ESOL programs.

There will be a special need for teachers who can be successful with children classified as limited English proficient, which at this time is about 3 percent of the total, Kirby said.

"The more help those children get in the first few years, the faster they'll progress," she said.

Like all of the 25 to 30 USF interns working this semester in Pinellas schools, Vietnamese-born Myhanh Ton speaks nothing but English to the five ESOL children she works with at Blanton. Ton, 25, uses a lot of gestures and facial expressions in Cristana Carlton's fourth-grade classroom, clearly enunciating the words and directing the children to repeat them after her.

Carlton, an 18-year veteran, said Ton's presence gives her the opportunity to observe her students' strengths and weaknesses.

"Having ESOL interns in the classroom is just another set of eyes and ears," she said. "They're an asset beyond words."

• • •

Turner, the principal, is hoping that the primary beneficiaries of the partnership will be kids like Alexander.

Last spring, Blanton became one of 25 high-poverty Pinellas elementary schools in "corrective action" for not meeting federal standards under the No Child Left Behind Act, despite posting the highest learning gains in the district among its lowest performing children.

Money or no money, Turner says she is determined to do whatever it takes to ensure that all Blanton children succeed.

"We have a philosophy here," she said. "Everything can be fixed."

After spending 13 years at a school where three out of four children qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch, she also has a motto.

"Just do it. There's no time to whine."

ESOL interns at Blanton: 'an asset beyond words' 10/04/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 7, 2008 1:48pm]

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