TAMPA — Susel Romero sits across a desk from the assistant principal of her new high school. Barely a month ago the lanky 14-year-old was living with her grandparents in Havana.
"This will be a good place for you," Walter Balser tells the ninth-grader in perfect Castilian Spanish. "You'll make friends. But that's not why you're here. You're here to learn, to succeed, to graduate."
He explains that for that to happen, Susel must take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in math and reading. Both are given in English.
Susel doesn't speak a word. "Nada, nada, nada," she says.
Balser tells the girl and her mother that Leto High School has tutoring after classes and on Saturdays. It's free, he tells Susel's mother when she asks.
"Come and find me if you have any trouble adjusting, or if you fall behind," Balser says. "Don't wait until it's too late."
It's a talk Balser gives often. In a typical week he might see three to five new students with limited English skills. He doesn't tell mother and daughter that to many, passing the test and earning a diploma can feel like moving a mountain.
Susel's mother promises they'll do what they have to, that school will come first, that Susel knows her future is in her hands.
The clock is ticking. The tests begin next year.
And Susel wants to be a doctor.
• • •
Leto High is where the numbers-driven expectations of the educational world collide with the reality of what America's classrooms increasingly look like. Schools and districts are judged by test scores and graduation rates. Rigor is the buzzword in Hillsborough County, which prides itself in filling Advanced Placement courses.
But many students lack the language skills to handle high school work, much less college-level studies. By official count 25 percent of Leto students speak English as a second language, compared with 12 percent for the district. Schoolwide, slightly more than one in five can read at grade level.
Hillsborough officials say non-English speakers are one reason their test scores have not improved at the pace of other large Florida districts. Nationwide, studies show that English language learners test at levels below their English-speaking peers, a trend with troublesome implications as the Hispanic population grows.
Language deficiencies also can mask learning disabilities. In a history class at Leto, students answer questions, sometimes with barely the trace of an accent. But they struggle when asked to read paragraphs from a textbook.
In states like New Mexico and New York, students can take competency tests in their native language. No such luck in Florida. Students must either retake the FCAT or pass another test in its place.
It can take years.
Teacher Nayvi Hernandez, who proctors the exam, sees students labor all day. "You have to rip the test from them," she says. "I've had kids refuse to eat lunch."
At Leto, which serves working-class Town 'N Country, the sound of Spanish in the hallways is nothing new. But it's more pronounced than a generation ago.
Suburban sprawl in the 1990s created newer high schools in the Carrollwood and Westchase areas that absorbed many white and affluent students. Magnets attracted high achievers who lived near Leto.
The school at last count was nearly 70 percent Hispanic and 80 percent low income. Reading proficiency, measured by a Level 3 or better on the 10th grade FCAT, was 15 percent in 2009. Since then it has climbed to 22.
The district tried to boost Leto's academics in 2007 with an AP magnet program. Administrators say it helped Leto hold on to some of its advanced students. One, senior Jennifer Ruiz, was accepted into Harvard.
But, in courses other than Spanish and Spanish literature, Leto students have struggled on the AP exams. With other students falling behind in credits at an alarming rate, Leto got creative this year.
The school launched a pilot program for its newest English language learners, kids like Susel.
Instead of being placed randomly in science, history and math, they are steered toward a group of teachers who are trained to adapt to language barriers. Bilingual aides and translators circulate the rooms. There's a study skills class, and an elaborate system of binders helps students keep track of what they need to learn and how they'll be graded.
It's a step in the right direction, Balser says, but not nearly enough for the students who arrive at Leto in a steady stream.
The day Susel registers, Balser also counsels a former student whose family spent five months in the Dominican Republic. The 17-year-old junior is on track with her credits. She's a nice kid, Balser says, but she scored in the lowest level on the reading FCAT.
"She will have to make a big effort," Balser tells the student and her family. "She has to be reading at home. Newspapers. Magazines. Or books. Everything. She has to be reading. Not Facebook. If only they gave an exam on Facebook, right?"
• • •
Day six for Susel, second period, Spanish class.
Hernandez, her teacher, is sharp-tongued but affectionate, the kind who's part standup comic. She tells one boy he must be in love when he messes up the subjunctive voice. Her impression of American accents has the kids in stitches.
Susel, dressed in white jeans with a matching white sweater and sneakers, sits up front, hand in the air, laughing at the jokes, answering every question. "Que nosotros comamos ... que tu corras ... que tu vivas ..."
Hernandez plays music as they work, Bebo & Cigala, the soundtrack of her childhood. "If you're Cuban, relax," she says. "If you're not, suffer."
She has a good idea what Susel is feeling. "It's horrible," she says. Her family left Cuba in 1994. "I got here on a Friday and started here (in Leto) on Monday."
Hernandez tries to make her class a comfort zone. "In a couple of weeks, they're going to start getting F's and D's in their other classes," she says.
The bell rings and Susel follows her classmates.
Counselors say that one of the hardest adjustments for foreign students is the size of a Florida campus, which can be overwhelming.
Susel, though, appears at ease, laughing with the girls, tousling the hair of one of the boys.
All of that changes in fifth-period English. Unlike her developmental English course, this class is reading Romeo and Juliet.
Teacher Giselda Montenegro tells them what a sonnet is, what an apothecary is, why the chorus is one person. They read the prologue in modern English. Montenegro promises they'll understand Shakespearean English later in the year, when they see the movie. "It's all about having background knowledge."
Montenegro also immigrated from Cuba. But she was in first grade then, and speaking English within six months.
Today she's having the class choose parts to read. "To make it a good play, we need to be able to perform it," she says.
Susel yawns, bites her nails, looks around at the others. A few times, Montenegro gives instruction in Spanish. "Pajina (Page) 21, la parte moderna (the modern part)."
Susel writes down words she doesn't know, as instructed.
Later she admits she was lost, more or less.
• • •
The two men leading Leto and its effort to help students overcome language barriers hail from Spain. But they arrived at vastly different ages.
Principal Victor Fernandez was 19 and can relate to what the kids are experiencing. Balser was 7, an easier age at which to learn a new language more quickly.
While Fernandez is more of a father figure, hosting pre-FCAT dinners and lecturing the boys on respecting their female classmates, Balser is more of a numbers guy. He hopes an initial analysis of the English Language Learners program will justify extending it into next year.
The effort is a passion for Balser, who got his master's at Columbia University. Much of what he does is inspired by his time at New York's top-rated Manhattan Bridges High School, which tailors instruction to language skills and other factors.
In the end, he says, it's up to families to decide if graduating the traditional way is realistic, or if they should consider Leto's Spanish-language GED program.
There are many variables: not just if they came from Cuba, but what part of Cuba. Not just whether they speak Spanish, but whether their Spanish skills are strong.
If a student speaks no English at 16, the odds aren't good.
But "there are anomalies," Balser says. "There are the cases out there where it's just happened. And those families insist and insist and insist because they know their child and they know that they're capable and they pull it off."
• • •
Susel and her 9-year-old sister were separated from their mother for four years. Madelaine Acosta fled Cuba with 18 others on a small boat. There's a picture of it in their living room.
Acosta understands a lot of English but knows that feeling of panic when asked to speak it in a doctor's office or bank.
She is trying to learn, with Susel, by computer. She is counting heavily on Leto High School to help her daughter acclimate to her new home.
A simple shopping trip can make Susel dizzy; everything is so different. "It's as if she came here from another planet," Acosta says in Spanish as they assess their progress on a Friday afternoon.
Some classes are easier than others. Susel has a good background in math, so algebra is no problem. In biology, she's confused without the translator.
She has made friends, but even lunch can be disorienting. "When they talk to me, they do it in Spanish," Susel says. "But with each other, they speak English."
Acosta tries to reassure her daughter. Give it a few months, she says. So Susel settles in for a weekend of homework and rest.
On Monday the mountain awaits.
Reach Marlene Sokol at email@example.com or (813) 226-3356.