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Easing the language barrier

For Kelly Talocco, the most challenging parts of the school day comes when she opens a textbook.

The 14-year-old Central High freshman immigrated from Colombia last summer with only a limited English vocabulary.

There are words whose meanings are foreign to her and concepts that are difficult to grasp. Although she is getting through her first year of high school in America, she can't help but feel that the language barrier has somehow diminished her capabilities as a student.

"(School) work is very difficult and takes a long time for me," she says. "There are many things I do not understand yet, so I don't do as well as I hoped to do."

In many ways, Kelly's struggles typify the world of immigrant students who move to Hernando County each year. While some of those students speak English well enough to become fully acclimated to the classroom activities, those who don't are enrolled in the county's English for Students of Other Languages program.

ESOL provides a number of in-school and outside resources for non-English speaking students at elementary and middle school levels, but only high school students are eligible to receive individual classroom language and reading instruction.

"High school academics is extremely difficult to get through if you don't speak the language," says Cynthia Haring, one of the county's two high school ESOL instructors. Haring, a former ESOL at Powell Middle, now divides her time between Central and Springstead high schools.

While most of her time is spent helping students increase their ability in reading and writing English, much of that direction is aimed toward improving chances for graduation.

"My main concern is getting them to reach FCAT benchmarks in math and English, because passing those tests are essential to them graduating at some point," says Haring, whose students come from places such as Korea, Lebanon, Iran, Cuba and Romania.

Because ESOL students must take the same classes as the rest of the school population, they must try to assimilate information that is geared to the majority of their classmates. That can be a problem, says Springstead freshman Jennifer Agudelo.

"Sometimes the teachers are hard to understand because the talk so quickly," said Jennifer, an immigrant from Colombia.

Indeed, Haring says that often the most difficult task confronting non-English speaking students is the ability to understand common vernacular and slang.

Because she has more than 15 Spanish-speaking students, the county's ESOL program allows Haring a paraprofessional aide to help with translations in classrooms.

"Most of them have a very hard time understanding the concepts we teach in our schools," says Hilda Colon, who has been an ESOL aide at Central for seven years.

In addition to her duties as a classroom translator, Colon often assists ESOL students in working on research papers, homework assignments and other classroom projects.

"Many of them came from countries where school was much less demanding," says Colon. "The idea of writing a research paper was something that most of them had never heard of before coming here."

While high school ESOL students do receive a fair amount of extra help from the county ESOL, Haring wishes she had more.

"I've seen so many get so frustrated they just quit altogether," she says. "The danger is that the more ESOL kids we get in the county, the harder it becomes to reach them all."

While high school ESOL students may find resources stretched thin, students at lower grade levels undoubtably have found it even tougher to get individualized help.

As of this school year, there are no classroom ESOL instructors at any of the county's elementary and middle schools. Instead, those schools are serviced by six lead teachers, whose responsibilities revolve around mainstreaming ESOL students regular classroom settings.

By integrating younger non-English speaking children into the classroom, they are more apt to master the language more quickly, says county ESOL director Ron Schildbach.

While the elimination of ESOL classes at the primary and middle school levels had much to do with budget considerations, Schildbach says that ESOL students who are mainstreamed "get comfortable speaking the language sooner."

Judy Hutchison, ESOL lead teacher at Spring Hill Elementary agrees. Hutchison, who used to spend much of her time instructing ESOL students one-on-one in a classroom, believes the new system allows for greater oversight of a student's progress.

"The idea was to get teachers better trained in working with ESOL students," says Hutchison. Under the new system Hutchison helps teachers plan learning strategies to ensure students are achieving grade-level success.

And while she hears from parents who want one-on-one classes, Hutchison believes that such an action would be a step backward.

"Our goal is to provide the best we can," she says. "Given time to work the rough spots out, I'm sure we will see better results in the long run."