NEW PORT RICHEY — Alex Shively's English was almost nonexistent when he enrolled in Gulf High School as a freshman.
"I knew some basic words. Hello. Basic stuff," recalled Shively, who moved to Pasco County from Russia as a 16-year-old in 2005. "It was hard understanding everybody talking to each other. I had no friends who spoke the same language."
That didn't stop him from fitting in, though. The school is filled with people from different countries who speak different languages, 30 in all (including English).
It's the result of a confluence of factors — the school's culturally flavored International Baccalaureate program, the proximity of agencies that serve immigrant and refugee families, the availability of nearby affordable housing, and a growing medical community that has attracted physicians from the Middle East and Asia.
"Overall, there is such a wide variety of nationalities represented at the school," principal Steve Knobl said. "It's almost like a U.N.-type high school."
Some speak limited English. Some are fluent in several languages. Some struggle with their coursework. Others cruise through the school's college-prep International Baccalaureate program.
Knobl seeks to focus on the diversity of culture and language as a strength, one that can help students understand and deal with the wider world. But he also wants them to embrace something they all have in common.
"They're all Buccaneers and they all need to support one another," Knobl said.
The school's Unity Club has grown to include hundreds of students, taking part in more activities than the single Unity Day that other schools have.
But at the same time, the school has done little extra to highlight the cultural differences in the student body.
In many ways it works.
Shively, for instance, talked about having many friends who help him learn English, as well as some who ask about speaking Russian. Sometimes, he said, he hears more Spanish than English in the hallways, and he's trying to learn that, too.
IB junior Adi Shah said he knows people who are Polish, German, Indian and of other backgrounds.
"You definitely feel like you're in a global community," said Shah, who moved to the United States from India in 2004 and is fluent in five languages. "Naturally, there are going to be people not that appreciative of differences. But in general, I feel at home."
So does Ngan Nguyen, who moved to the United States from Vietnam in 2007.
She's part of a growing number of Vietnamese students in Pasco County. The language is now the third-most spoken in the district — Spanish is second and Arabic is fourth — with numbers big enough to justify the district's hiring of its first Vietnamese-speaking instructional assistant.
The district also puts out parent phone messages in Vietnamese, as well as English, Spanish and Mandarin.
Moving to Gulf High was tough enough for Nguyen just because it was her third high school in three years. But unlike her most recent past school, Gulf had some positives, she said.
There are others who speak Vietnamese, for one.
"At my school last year, everyone spoke English and Spanish. I felt like an outsider. That was really bad," she said. At Gulf, "they accept me."
Still, she keeps mostly to herself. A self-identified "book nerd," Nguyen loves to read and to learn about biology and chemistry. Her goal is to get out of high school and study biochemistry at a college in the Northeast.
At least at Gulf, she said, she has the opportunity to do as she pleases.
Others interact more freely.
Junior Ajla Spijodic, who grew up in Bosnia, chatted over lunch with friends who speak Samoan, Spanish and English. She said when she first came to the country speaking no English, back in third grade, she learned to "go with the flow."
"Now I understand just like a regular kid," she said.
Her friend, sophomore Leighlani Paselio, said her family is rooted in Samoan culture and shares it with the school in many ways, such as teaching the football team a Samoan warrior dance to perform before games.
"There are many different cultures at the schools," Paselio said.
The girls started ticking off all the people they know who speak different languages.
A friend from Sudan. A visiting student from Sweden. The list went on.
"Wow. There really are a lot," Paselio observed.
If there is a problem with the number of students whose primary language is not English, it's that Gulf High hasn't been able to offer a developmental language arts course — one that focuses heavily on the English language for students who need it most.
The students are mainstreamed into regular courses, with teachers given special strategies to help them.
That's good, because students are exposed to the harder work they must complete. It's also potentially bad because the academic English that students need to perform well in their courses, not to mention the FCAT, is not learned by watching TV and talking with friends.
Communication skills come quickly, said ESOL resource teacher Lynn Galvin-Murray, but the academic language can take six years.
"We're looking to offer it again," Galvin-Murray said of the developmental English course.
But that's a small piece of the whole, one that Knobl hopes to build upon by expanding the IB program and putting more focus on diversity for students and teachers alike.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.