DADE CITY — Sophomores Maria Rodriguez and Cindy Artola minced no words about their Pasco High School English class.
They hated it.
Their teacher didn't communicate well with them and didn't help much, they said.
"We wanted to change our class, we were doing so bad," said Artola, 16. "The way the teacher is, is not the way we are used to."
Their teacher, Vance Scheer, shared their pessimism.
"These girls were fighting with me. They were mad at me," he recalled. "Their work was late and not good."
Then the girls discovered the school's new after-school tutoring program aimed specifically at students who are the children of migrant farmworkers.
Tutor Tracy Turner, who also teaches eighth grade at Pasco Middle, listened to the girls' concerns. She met with Scheer to discuss such the girls' academic needs, the possibility of doing makeup work and other opportunities to help them improve.
And then they set about getting there during twice-weekly sessions in a conference room in Pasco High's administration building.
It turned out to be exactly what the girls, as well as others in the fledgling program, have needed to turn their performance around.
"When they come into my class now, they're smiling, they're happy, they're confident," Scheer said, explaining that their work is on time and done well, resulting in B's and A's. "I fully expect I will be recommending them for honors English next year. They are on their way."
Pasco County has about 110 migrant students, including 16 at Pasco High. Over time, their needs have changed as the state has increased its academic expectations, said Mary Grace Sabella, who oversees migrant services for the district.
After interviewing parents and students, Sabella said, the staff determined that extra tutoring could make a difference.
"One of the big gaps was, parents have a hard time helping their kids with homework," she said, citing language and cultural differences as two barriers.
Many families could not afford tutors, though, so the department tapped into its federal funding for migrant education to provide it.
Poring over English and algebra assignments, surrounded by Cheetos and Pepsis, the five teens who met with Turner on Thursday expressed gratitude at having the extra assistance.
"We asked for this help," said senior Elizabeth Solorzano, 17, who has begun making A's in Algebra II since joining.
"Plus, our moms and dads want us to come," chimed in freshman Miguel Rosales, 15.
Rosales said he had struggled with his school work until his mom told him about the tutoring.
"I decided to stay and try it out, and I liked it," he said. "They can really help me with my work." In just two weeks, "my grades are up."
At first, Solorzano worried that she would not be able to take advantage of the program. She had no way to get to her Lacoochee home after school without the bus.
Sabella and Turner eliminated that problem by offering all the students rides. Now Solorzano, also the school's Migrant Club president, takes full advantage of the help and has convinced them to offer more.
"I took the ACT already but I got an 18," she said. "I want at least a 22."
So Turner has agreed to provide SAT and ACT prep tutoring on Mondays. She's looking for a spot closer to the students' homes, in hope of reaching even more teens.
Solorzano said she's grateful to have the time and a place to get her work done. She hopes to become a radiologist.
"I don't really have a desk at home," she said. "The table is always in use. If I'm on there, I know someone is going to be drinking or eating. It's easier to do homework here."
When she finished her work, she gladly helped another student get through his assignment.
Turner said she's been thrilled with the response she's seen from both the students and their teachers.
"I have been impressed by their improvement because it did happen quickly," said Turner, who sees her role as part teacher, part motivator, part liaison. "It just took a little communication with their teachers. Their teachers were so willing to work with us. It was amazing."
The students return the compliment.
"She's a miracle worker," Maria Rodriguez said of Turner, praising the teacher's efforts to help her get passing grades. "I've always been bad at school. This year I'm good. ... I am happy."
Sabella is examining the effort to see how it might be improved, and how it could be replicated at other schools.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.