It started with three words: "No hablo inglés."
The men and women who began walking into Frontier Elementary School spoke them by way of introduction.
The clerk at the Clearwater school would stare at the couples and their young children. They would stare back.
"At first when this started happening, it was sort of daunting, and the front office staff wasn't accustomed to it," says Wendy Bryan, the principal of Frontier.
But in the past couple of years, Bryan says this scene has become almost routine: Doors opening, "No hablo inglés," and the children enrolling.
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While total enrollment in Pinellas schools has been steadily declining, the number of English-language learners has increased 45 percent in six years.
A growing piece of a shrinking pie, these students will more and more define the success of Pinellas schools. But they're not doing particularly well. English-language learners in Pinellas perform significantly worse than their native-speaker peers on reading, math and science tests, and their scores are below average for English-language learners across Florida.
Natasa Karac, the Pinellas program coordinator for English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL, says it's time to be creative. Pinellas schools are trying parent classes, free laptops, aquarium trips — everything they can think of — to get children up to speed.
"We have to find a way to service these students," Karac says. "The future of all of us, and the success of all of us, depends on how they perform."
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Twelve inches in a foot, 3 feet in a yard, and all the conversions in between. That was the lesson before Cristiana Fryberger's fifth-grade class on Wednesday at Blanton Elementary in Kenneth City.
A second woman sitting next to 10-year-old Franklin Collazo whispered, "Treinta-seis pulgadas."
Franklin arrived from Cuba 11 months ago. He penciled "36" onto a yellow notepad.
The rules of ESOL are laid out in a 1990 agreement between Florida and the League of United Latin American Citizens. If a school enrolls at least 15 ESOL students of the same language, it must hire a bilingual assistant. Pinellas employs more than 100.
Teachers with English-language learners in their classrooms complete 300 extra training hours. They learn to use more visuals, and they learn about cultural differences they might encounter.
Pinellas school officials say they follow the law but know it's not enough.
Only 27 percent of Pinellas English-language learners passed the FCAT in reading last year, less than half the county-wide pass rate of 56 percent. But perhaps more alarmingly, English-language learners in Pinellas lag behind English-language learners across Florida: The average state pass rate is 33 percent.
The gap is even larger on the math FCAT, with 32 percent passing in Pinellas and 41 percent passing statewide.
In the fall, Pinellas made it a district priority to raise these students' FCAT scores.
Engaging parents and setting high standards are the yellow brick road, superintendent Michael Grego says. Succeeding on "the FCAT will come as a result, when we lay that groundwork."
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One morning last week, parents of ESOL students gathered at Frontier for muffins and juice and were sent home with gift bags. Each contained a clock, calculator, ruler, pencils and play money — tools to set up a homework center in their homes.
Frontier began hosting these monthly "coffee chats" this year. The school staff also is holding adult literacy classes, figuring that if they help parents with their English, parents can help their kids with schoolwork.
These are just two of several initiatives Pinellas schools started in the past few years.
Schools are bringing speakers into high schools to talk with English-language learners about college. The elementary school kids go on field trips to museums, aquariums, theaters — places they'd never normally go, Karac says. They are amazed.
Some, for the first time, are using computers at home. Last month, the school system distributed 80 netbooks equipped with ESOL software to students at Oak Grove Middle.
A few weeks ago, Pinellas schools launched a Spanish-language phone line, urging parents to call in with school-related questions: How do I get my child tested for gifted? How do I apply for magnet schools?
But sometimes parents misunderstand the phone line's purpose. They call looking for a job.
More than 90 percent of Pinellas ESOL students qualify for free or reduced lunch, an indicator of poverty. It explains why some schools stopped offering adult classes like Frontier's.
"If the parents have to work two jobs, even though there is a need and even though there is a will to do it, they just don't have the time," Karac says.
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Therra Lucien, 10, left Haiti in August. Her mother is still there.
The earthquake took Therra's home, and the Blanton fifth-grader knows enough English now to describe that memory: "Everybody run. I run. But I fell and I get up, and I run away. My mother was looking for me, her friend see me. … All night you can feel it."
Not speaking English is about so much more than not speaking English.
Many ESOL students like Therra come from difficult circumstances. Some are political refugees. Collectively, students speak 88 languages. Two-thirds speak Spanish, but there's Vietnamese, Serbo-Croatian, Arabic.
All this and more is why the Oak Grove netbooks also contained information on avoiding identity fraud and insurance scams. It's not just teaching a language or a test, but coping skills.
• • •
Tuesday was Abdullah Jasim's first day at Blanton. In the words of his principal, he had a meltdown. No one on staff spoke Arabic. A fourth-grade girl who had lived in Saudi Arabia translated.
They learned that Abdul, 6, was scared because he had not been allowed to get up from his seat in Iraq. When he saw other students stand up, he panicked. When everyone ran around him in P.E., he was overwhelmed.
So it was with a bit of trepidation that principal Deborah Turner walked into Abdul's classroom the next day, while Franklin Collazo converted inches into yards and Therra Lucien missed her mother.
"Hi," Turner said to the long-lashed, Bambi-eyed boy. He gripped the legs of his chair.
Abdul's teacher gave him a book. The title was Fruit Salad.
He smiled shyly. And seemingly out of nowhere, but certainly out of somewhere, he looked at the words on the pages and spouted in perfect English, "I like apples, I like oranges, I like bananas, I like pears. I like fruit salad."
Contact Lisa Gartner at email@example.com.