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Teachers to break language barriers

Algebra is easy for 14-year-old Erika Velez, but the English instructions sometimes baffle the Adams Junior High student. In September, only three months after moving here from Puerto Rico, Erika landed in Belinda Serrano's tough ninth-grade math class with 35 English-speaking classmates.

She needed help, and she got it in a language she understands.

Erika, an "A" student, said, in halting English, that she asked a question in Spanish and got her answer in Spanish. Although it's difficult for her to understand English, Erika said, "I try."

Serrano, who is bilingual, teaches in English, but breaks into Spanish for the students who need it.

There's no rule requiring her to teach in Spanish, and she wasn't hired for her ability to speak Spanish. It just made sense to do it this way, she said.

"I'm putting myself in their place," Serrano said.

Many teen-agers are shy, and Serrano figures it's rougher for kids who aren't confident of their English. They may be ashamed to admit they cannot keep up.

"At this age they can be bad. They can be evil to each other. So they don't want to stick out. If they do, they get picked on," she said.

The state Department of Education expanded its bilingual program this year in response to complaints, said Donald R. Taylor, Hillsborough schools director of comprehensive planning.

Students who don't speak English attend regular classes. Locally, more than 5,200 students either don't speak English or speak it with difficulty, Taylor said. Of those students, about 95 percent speak Spanish and the remaining students speak one of 25 other languages, he said.

In the next year, Hillsborough teachers will be trained to help those foreign language students. Those students also will get more intensive English training, Taylor said.

"They may fall a little bit behind in the subject material, but once they're able to master the language, we'll provide special instruction so they can catch up," Taylor said.

A bilingual aide was hired this week at Adams Junior High to help 35 students, including Erika, cope with English, assistant principal Walt Shaffner said.

But Taylor acknowledges that the aides are spread thin and that teachers such as Serrano help.

At least four bilingual teachers at Adams Junior High have developed methods to teach their Spanish-speaking students. Math teacher Al Fernandez assigned a bilingual student to help an eighth-grade classmate who cannot speak English.

He lets them whisper in class, but checks periodically to make sure the two students stick to math talk.