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As world comes to local schools, so do expenses

Published Oct. 2, 2005

When 16-year-old Dao Dung thinks of what school was like in his native Vietnam, he just shakes his head.

"In Vietnam, they only have school for three hours a week, and they don't teach anything, just math," he said. "We came here because my dad wanted me to learn more."

When Dung arrived in the United States five years ago, he spoke no English. He started at Mittye P. Locke Elementary School in fourth grade, and for months did not have a clue what anyone was saying.

Dung, now a sophomore at Gulf High School, speaks English well enough to take a full load of high school courses, including biology, driver's education and honors geometry. He still takes a special English class for foreign-born students.

"At first I was scared, nervous. I didn't know anything," Dung said of his arrival in American schools. "Math is very easy, but understanding English is very hard."

For decades, American public schools have welcomed the children of immigrants and refugees. Educating them usually has been a demand placed on big school districts, such as those in South Florida, New York and California.

But recently, more children such as Dung and his four brothers and sisters are enrolling in less urban districts such as Pasco County's.

The shift is starting to show. Pasco will spend $6-million this year teaching about 1,000 children who speak little or no English, or about $6,000 on each one. That is almost double the $3,500 the district spends on each English-speaking student.

The district also serves an additional 500 children, but that funding comes from other programs, such as special education.

In total, there are almost as many non-English-speaking students in Pasco schools (1,509) as there are in Pinellas County schools (1,908), even though Pinellas has more than twice as many students.

Pasco school officials say the number of immigrant children has skyrocketed since a state court ruling in 1990 that guaranteed their right to a public education. In 1990, 264 students in Pasco County schools spoke little or no English. This year, the 1,509 could fill an entire high school.

"We have a lot of political refugees here," said Beatrice Palls, the district administrator in charge of services for immigrant children. "The floodgates have opened."

The influx presents the district and teachers with a difficult and expensive task: educating a large and growing student body of multinational children who speak little or no English.

The children in Pasco schools come from every corner of the globe and speak more than 39 languages.

Anclote Elementary, for example, has 60 foreign-born students this year. They come from 14 countries and speak 12 languages.

Teachers and administrators say the children bring a rich diversity to their classrooms and are often bright and hardworking. They teach their classmates about their homelands and share their traditions and customs.

"The children are wonderful, and we try to instill in them that we are all a family," said Anclote teacher Jan Cocuzzi, who has 10 children in her reading class who speak little or no English. "By the end of the year, you can see so much progress."

But behind the scenes, a huge state-mandated bureaucracy governs how these children are educated. It is a tedious, often frustrating process.

"It's like an octopus," Palls said. "It's got a tentacle in every class, every program and every school."

It is an expensive octopus, at that.

The $6-million being spent on these children this year in Pasco is needed to pay for state-mandated teacher training, special tests, translators, bilingual teacher aides and classroom materials such as dictionaries.

Richey Elementary has had to hire teacher assistants who speak German, French, Spanish, Vietnamese and Serbo-Croatian. Such costs have risen so high that the district relies on a corps of 70 bilingual volunteers to translate, interpret during parent/teacher conferences and help with other communications.

The volunteers are important because the state mandates that all vital information _ permission slips, newsletters and report cards _ be sent home in the parents' native language. Pasco County has had 38 such forms translated.

"I can't tell you how much money we've spent translating the student code of conduct," Palls said.

Meanwhile, the amount the state contributes to help pay for the expenses is getting smaller.

In 1990, the state contributed an additional 60 percent on top of its standard per-student funding for each student who spoke little or no English. This year, the additional money is down to 20 percent. In Pasco, that means the state gives about $3,470 for non-English-speaking students, compared with $2,892 for regular students.

That is not enough to pay for the additional services required by the state.

"It's being mandated, but it's not being funded," Palls said.

Then there is the paperwork.

Every time teachers work with a student who doesn't speak English, they must document what they taught, how they taught it and what the intended results were.

The forms are filed in duplicate _ one for the teacher, one for the principal. The information must correspond to the teacher's written lesson plans for the rest of the class.

All teachers who come into contact with foreign children must go back to school for classes on how to teach them, even if they have the students for a few minutes a day.

Music teachers, for example, who might have a single foreign student in their class once a week for an hour, must get 60 hours of state-mandated training, often at their own expense.

Relatively speaking, music teachers get off easy.

Language arts and elementary teachers must take 300 hours of classes during a five-year period. Those who don't stand to lose their teaching certificates. It is a burr in the sides of many teachers, who said the courses are often a rehash of ones they already took.

In Pasco County, the immigrant students receive almost all their instruction in English from regular classroom teachers. School officials say that if you immerse children in English, they will learn it faster than if it is taught to them in a class. Other counties, including Pinellas, separate their foreign students from the rest of the student body.

Teachers say teaching a child who doesn't speak English isn't easy. The teachers often have to use exaggerated gestures, drawings and interpreters.

"You start with the basics and try to build a solid foundation," said Richey Elementary teacher Donna Koshlap, whose class includes two Vietnamese children, two Hispanic children and a Bosnian child. "You try to point, you try to use pictures. It takes a lot longer."

Sometimes the lessons work. Other times they don't. Richey Elementary teacher Melissa Bennett recalled a time when she was working with a Bosnian girl on rounding numbers to the nearest decimal place.

Bennett used a Serbo-Croatian dictionary and pointed to the word "round" and a picture of a circle.

"I was trying to explain it when the little girl got up and started walking around and around the table," Bennett said.

In addition to classroom lessons, there are other challenges. Religious and cultural differences have had administrators and teachers scratching their heads.

Richey principal Terri Mutell recalled how one Bosnian boy was terrified of open spaces like the playground.

One day, children in Bennett's class were squeezing each other on the back of their necks. When someone squeezed a boy from Chile, he panicked. Bennett found out that in Chile, necks are not touched casually.

Despite the obstacles and challenges, teachers say, they are amazed how fast the children learn English, make friends and fit in.

During the past four years, more than 1,300 students have improved so much that they no longer require special services.

Many of the students are refugees and are not U.S. citizens. Like the generations before them, they came to the United States seeking a better life. Many are fleeing from war or political instability. Others were brought here by human rights groups or church organizations.

Exactly why the children are in the United States or how they got here is a mystery, though, because schools are not allowed to ask. Courts have ruled that it is unfair to ask for such information.

"You can't ask why they are here," said Anclote principal B.J. Smith. "We have to respect that, and it's part of the mandate. They're kids. They're here. We have to teach them."

English education by the numbers

+ $5,943,740: Amount Pasco County will spend this year educating children who speak little or no English.

+ 1,509: Number of students who speak little or no English.+

+ 575: percent increase of foreign students since 1990.

+ 300: hours of training elementary teachers must receive after a non-English speaking student is placed in their class.

+ 71: number of volunteer translators and interpreters in Pasco schools.

+ 38: number of foreign languages spoken in Pasco schools.

+ 25: percent decrease, since 1990, in state funding for non-English speaking students.

+The cost of educating about 500 of these students is funded through other programs.

A wealth of languages

The following are languages, other than English, spoken in Pasco schools:

Albanian, Arabic, Bulgarian, Cantonese, Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Farsi, Flemish, Fox, French, German, Greek, Gujarati, Haitian Creole, Hindi, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Laotian, Lithuanian, Marshallese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, Slovak, Tagalog, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu, Vietnamese.

Source: Pasco County school district