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He accentuates English skills

A teacher who came from Mexico tutors struggling students in an English as a second language class.

It's hard to learn, sitting in the corner of a classroom with a couple of crayons.

David Frias knows that. He's been there.

His ninth-grade English teacher banished him there. He had just come from Mexico and he couldn't say much more than "May I go to the restroom?" _ let alone read Romeo and Juliet or write poetry. So she gave him a couple of Crayolas and tucked him out of the way.

"Of course, I failed that class," said Frias, now 26. And he failed biology, too.

But he didn't give up.

He picked up the language in summer school and from English speakers around him, graduated from the University of South Florida and has become a teacher.

Four days a week, here at the Farmworker's Self-Help in Dade City, he sees between 15 and 35 kids just like him.

Frias tutors them as part of a 6-year-old, federally funded Pasco schools program for about 150 students who are new to the county and born in another country. The program at the Self-Help is one of six such sites, school officials said.

It started in January and is the county's most expansive _ 12 hours a week. It is also the first time the program has been held outside a school, in hopes of making the struggling students feel more comfortable, said Beatrice Palls, the director of English as a second language and foreign languages for Pasco schools.

"Basically, we're working to improve their grades," Frias said. "Last semester, some of them failed some of their classes.

"Some of them, they just want to quit school. They don't understand their teachers."

Frias' mission: Keep them going back, and passing.

Impossible? If so, he would never admit it.

Look at him, he says.

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Two high school students here don't know the alphabet.

"They're having a hard time understanding even the easiest stuff," Frias said.

Every time they hear a new word, Frias, a substitute teacher in Pasco and Hillsborough counties, makes them write a sentence with it in their journals.

Those journals are filling quickly.

Frias is the only school-paid employee here, but he gets some help from other community members and a teacher. He also gets assistance from the Self-Help's Maria Rosales, who used to proofread his papers when he was in college.

They write body parts on the board and have the kids learn them in English.

Pasco Middle School seventh-grader Elizabeth Mendoza is better for it. Twenty months ago she didn't know any English, she said.

"I understand much more than before so I can talk to people," she said.

She attributes much of her success to her teacher, Frias.

But Frias is more than a teacher, he's a counselor, friend and role model, as well.

"He helped himself and look where he's at," said German Cardenas, a ninth-grader at Pasco High School who came to the United States in 1999.

The crayon-in-corner days of ignoring immigrants' special learning needs are over, Palls said.

"I'm glad we're out of those dark ages," she said.

In the 1994-95 school year, Pasco's school system received its first funding to start an after-school tutoring program for immigrants, Palls said. It received $147,000 this year.

Some meet in the afternoon and others meet in the evening with the hope of drawing parents, Palls said.

Each group's aim is to teach the students how to succeed with English, Palls said.

This year, Margarita Romo, the executive director of the Self-Help, succeeded in drawing the program to her social service and advocacy agency.

"We see the dropout rate," Romo said. "We saw the bad grades some kids were making . . . and it needed to change."

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Frias' motivation to succeed was simple: He didn't want to work in the fields like his parents.

He picked strawberries, tomatoes, and other fruit and vegetables on the weekend. He traveled each summer to Wisconsin with his parents to pick cucumbers.

His dad told him, "You don't want to go to the fields and do the things I'm doing," Frias said.

Friends didn't make it any easier. They quit school, got jobs and tried to tempt him with the cars they drove.

Drop out and have a car like us, they said.

But Frias was never tempted, he said. He wanted to make the best of America.

He came to this country as a 14-year-old. He and his father joined his mother and eight siblings, who were living in Dade City. Frias enrolled in ninth grade at Pasco High School.

Suddenly Spanish was a foreign language. And one of his favorite pastimes in Mexico, wandering the streets in the evening, wasn't customary.

He lay in bed at night, the quiet streets surrounding him, and missed his home, two hours north of Mexico City.

The summer after his sophomore year, he stayed a while in Florida and attended a six-week English class for migrant workers at USF.

English got easier. He passed the rest of his classes, graduated and went to Pasco-Hernando Community College, then USF.

Seventh-grader Juan Ramirez, who came to America a year and a half ago, wants to be a teacher, just like Frias.

"I was so surprised he came from Mexico," Ramirez said, "just like me."

_ Ryan Davis covers higher education and social services in Pasco. He can be reached at 800-333-7505 ext. 3452 or by e-mail at rdavissptimes.com. Discuss this and other issues in our online discussion forum at http://www.sptimes.com/pascoforum.

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