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Before mastering language, class is oasis

The bell signaling the start of class at Benito Middle School rang 20 minutes ago. Still 14-year-old Rosa Duran sat blank faced.

No homework on her desk, no textbooks in her bag, confused eyes on the front board.

Most of Jacqueline Santini's students start this way _ silent and staring at her like she's speaking another language.

To them, she is.

"In the beginning they will not say a word for fear of saying anything wrong _ if they understand anything," says Santini, one of two teachers of English for Speakers of Other Languages at Benito. "They seem so lost."

Many begin like young Rosa.

"Not a word of English," says Santini, her eyes on the Mexican girl who arrived in the United States one week ago.

The children come yearround _ from Nigeria, Peru, Brazil, Bosnia, Togo and China. Twenty-four countries in all. More than a dozen languages.

At most, Santini will have two years with them.

Two years to teach a new language, a new culture, a new way of life.

Is it enough to guarantee their success here?

"It's enough for them to survive," she says.

Her students know how important these lessons are, how crucial this time is.

To them Mrs. Santini is not just a teacher. She is family.

And Room 604 is not only a classroom, but a second home.

Coming to America

"My mom wanna give me a good life," explains 15-year-old Daniela Diaz from Caracas.

Her slim arms peek out from a baby blue "Varsity Princess" T-shirt one morning as she takes roll for Santini. Silver glitter eye shadow decorates deep brown eyes.

"Venezuela have much trouble now. My mom think Venezuela is not a good place now for me; she wanted me to study my profession," says Daniela, an advanced math and science student at Benito. She dreams of becoming a dentist.

When the teen first moved to Tampa Palms eight months ago, "I cried . . . I got scared," she admits.

Her friends were in another country, as were her father and brother. The people here could not understand her halting English or her homesickness.

For Daniela, the real welcome to America happened inside a sunlit classroom where books litter every surface and homemade English flash cards are taped to cabinets, doors, sinks and filing cabinets.

This is where Santini's 35 seventh- and eighth- graders take their first steps.

Throughout the day they wander in for help with homework or for the translation of a class assignment. Sometimes they come just to make sure Santini is still there, ready to listen and offer support.

"If something happen, they tell us to talk," explains Afra Senoz of Turkey. Each day she spends two hours here, alternately ignoring and conversing with her cousin Semih two rows away. "It is just like my home."

Scooting their desks closer to Afra's during a break, Nhuuyen Ngo from Japan and Sheica Henry from Haiti nod their heads in agreement.

In here, "we can talk very good English," says Nhuuyen. "Everybody friends. No fights."

They may come from different countries but they are all in the same boat, say the girls.

Hillsborough County is home to nearly 1,800 public school students with limited English proficiency, according to school district figures.

Although New Tampa is not the largest ESOL community in the county, it is the most diverse, said Carmen Sorondo, the district's supervisor of programs for LEP students.

"The dominant language in all of the schools is Spanish, it's probably close to 90 percent," Sorondo said. However, "Wharton High School in New Tampa is one that has a lot of different languages . . . Benito is also very diverse."

A glimpse at the reading material in Room 604 offers its own proof.

The bookshelves by Santini's desk are stacked from top to bottom with dictionaries translating myriad languages and dialects to English: Spanish, Turkish, Russian, Polish, Japanese, French, Romanian, Chinese, Bosnian, Korean, Vietnamese, Yoruba, Telugu, Arabic.

Because any one teacher can only speak so many languages, each ESOL instructor is taught a variety of tactics to help students learn. Chief among those tools are visual aides, special texts and county-appointed teaching assistants called paraprofessionals, who specialize in a given language.

For Santini, paraprofessionals Wanda Torres and Argelio Rodriguez are a saving grace, making it possible for each student to receive one-on-one attention throughout the day.

The two work closesly with specific groups of children, following them from class to class, helping with homework and serving as translators for parents, students and faculty. They also prepare stacks of ESOL paperwork charting student progress, compile funding documents and ensure required forms and tests are completed.

On this, Rosa's first day, Torres pops an introductory English video into the VCR and prepares to guide her through her first lesson. Soon the teenager should be able to identify basic objects in English, translate her course schedule and name different buildings in the school.

"The first weeks are a little bit awkward for them," confides Torres. "It's a lot of new things."

But so far Rosa is hanging in there.

Santini has worked as an ESOL resource teacher in the Hillsborough County schools for four years.

Before moving to Florida she was a high school instructor in Puerto Rico, teaching English as an extracurricular subject. She then taught at Pierce Middle School in Town 'N Country before transferring to Benito.

These lessons offer a passport to new possibilities _ academic and otherwise. And, with middle school students she can still see traces of wonder and a lingering tenderness.

Getting To Know You

Julissa Minaya sits in the last row of Room 604. A petite 13-year-old with an infectious smile and chubby cheeks, she plunges into class discussions and is one of the first to offer assistance to struggling peers.

Her soft voice carries the cadence of the Dominican Republic, where she lived just eight months ago.

That seems like another life now.

Here at Benito she is learning to read stories in English and making new friends.

"Neli, she sits right there," Julissa says, pointing to a desk across the room. "She's from Togo . . . that's in Africa."

When the two girls talk, "sometimes I forget the words in English but Neli remembers. We talk about a lot of things," Julissa informs. "We talk about class, we talk about people, we talk about our countries.

"I tell her in my country, the school is from 8 to 12," she says, conceding she prefers that schedule. "But here I like all my teachers and all my friends."

It never ceases to surprise her, says Santini, that students from such varied backgrounds find ways to connect.

Nhuuyen from Osaka, Japan and Sheica from Port-au-Prince, Haiti seem inseparable at times.

A class exercise one afternoon reveals both are trilingual (Nhuuyen, a Lutz resident, speaks Japanese, Vietnamese and now English. Sheica, who lives near the University of South Florida, speaks French, Haitian-Creole and English.)

A day does not go by that they don't talk, giggle or slip notes to each other.

Sometimes though, stuffing an international community into a single room can be frustrating.

"They speak Spanish all the time! I hate that," Nhuuyen declares one day as two classmates from South America chat together. "This is an English class."

Daniela, meanwhile, is determined to remain bilingual.

"I want to learn in English, but I don't want to lose my Spanish," she says. "It's very important now if you want to find work to know two languages."

Expanding her circle of friends outside of the ESOL classroom has also been challenging.

At first "I don't like the people," she recalls. "Sometimes they are rude with the people from other countries. They think they are the best and that makes me feel bad."

But "in all place they have people like that." And Daniela now has an extensive list of American-born friends.

Progress

The last of Santini's two-hour language blocks has just ended when 12-year-old Jose Gonzalez from Mexico walks back into the room. With pink cheeks and a shy smile he glances at the computer where an accelerated reading exam awaits and whispers to his teacher: "Ms. Santini, can I take the test?"

"Did you hear that?" she exclaims, beaming at the boy who rarely speaks even after six months here. "He asked in English!"

The average stay in the county's ESOL program is four years, Sorondo says. Funding is provided for up to six years, although many students exit within two.

The best indicator of success is the age at which students enter the program. Younger students who begin in first grade generally exit by second or third.

The older a student, the longer it takes to learn.

"We provide the same level of instruction as all other students," Sorondo says, refuting assumptions that ESOL students are given easier workloads as they learn the language. "That no longer takes place, so time is an important factor now more than ever. Some students come in during their junior year and they have to be able to meet all the requirements to receive a diploma from the state of Florida. That's a real challenge."

At a recent parent conference night, Santini did not waste an opportunity to plug new after-school study hours for ESOL students. The additional time will allow her and the aides to stop pulling their pupils from other classes during the day or catching them before school begins.

The children study so hard, the teachers say. And the extra effort pays off.

Two of Santini's students recently burst into class to tell her they were accepted to competitive high school magnet programs, beating out U.S.-born peers for slots. Neli Gozo from Togo will attend Tampa Bay Tech for health professions while Claudia Trejos from Colombia will move on to Blake to study journalism.

Another came to inform her with equal measures of excitement and panic that she had tested so well, the school wanted to place her in advanced courses next year _ including advanced English.

"Poor baby, she was so nervous," Santini says.

"Ninety percent of these kids are so hardworking. They want to learn, they want to please their teachers and they'll find a way . . . they'll come here to find a way."

By midafternoon Room 604 is quiet, its children gone for the day. Behind delicate glasses Santini's eyes slide to the rows of vacated desks.

"One more year and they'll be out of this program," she predicts, her voice soft. "They'll soar. That's how they are."

_ Melia Bowie can be reached at 813-269-5312

A NEW WORLD IN NEW TAMPA

New Tampa is home to the most diverse ESOL population in Hillsborough County, according to school district figures.

At Wharton High School there are 171 limited English proficiency students who speak 18 different languages. They hail from 32 countries.

At Benito Middle School there are 108 LEP students. They speak 15 different languages and come from 24 countries.

Hunter's Green Elementary School has traditionally been the most diverse primary school (although its numbers dropped when Pride Pride Elementary opened in 2000). Hunter's Green now has 63 LEP students who speak 18 languages and come from 16 countries.

Pride has 75 LEP students who speak six languages and hail from 12 countries.

Lawton Chiles Elementary has 64 LEP students, 10 languages and 18 countries represented.

Tampa Palms Elementary has 39 LEP students who speak 10 languages and hail from 16 countries.

Clark Elementary has 70 LEP students, 10 languages and 12 countries represented.

Places represented by New Tampa's ESOL students include:

India

Romania

Germany

Korea

Sierra Leone

Poland

Uruguay

Colombia

Venezuela

Puerto Rico

Haiti

Dominican Republic

Mexico

Turkey

Brazil

China

Lebanon

Nigeria

Peru

Bosnia

Japan

Cuba

Iran

Saudi Arabia

Togo

Pakistan

Vietnam

Kuwait

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