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Breaking language barriers

David Enrique Silva is only 8, but he already has his future mapped out. The Spring Hill Elementary third-grader wants to be a nurse like his dad, a baseball player, and, oh yes, the president of the United States.

But when he's reminded that he can't be president because he wasn't born in the United States, he's only temporarily deterred.

"But I can if Puerto Rico becomes a state," he says.

David spent the first five years of his life in his native Puerto Rico. His father, also named David, was born in New York City but moved to Puerto Rico with his family when he was four.

He returned to the United States briefly several times, but for the most part, spent his adult life in Puerto Rico, where he met and married Liser Melendez.

Recruited by a Florida health agency for his nursing skills, Silva came to the United States two and a half years ago, alone, with five dollars in his pocket, a couple of suitcases and limited English. Four months later, he sent for Liser, young David, and daughter Yashira Pino, now 16, a student at Central High.

"All we had were a lot of dreams," said Silva.

Many of those dreams revolved around a better life for his children and better medical care for his wife, to whom he donated a kidney and who still faces a variety of health problems.

David has his own ideas about how to make things better, especially for kids like himself - when he's president, that is.

"If I was president, the kids who come the first time to America, I would make it that they could have ESOL programs," said David, refering to the English Speakers of Other Languages program. As he spoke, his rapid-fire English slowed only to correct himself or to ask if he was using the right word.

David's fondness for the English Speakers of Other Languages program is music to his teachers' ears, because they have worked hard to help David and other children like him with their transition into the American school system.

ESOL is the program responsible for producing English-proficient students who can pass the state's standardized tests.

ESOL teachers in the Hernando County school district work with parents and the classroom teachers, mapping out strategies to help the students progress. Some also have the added responsibility of assessing the non-English-speaking students' proficiency levels, compiling statistics and filling out state-mandated reports.

All ESOL and Language Arts teachers in Florida must earn endorsement by completing 300 credit hours of specialized instruction. In addition, Florida requires that all teachers have a minimum of 18 hours of ESOL training as part of their certification.

That training, along with other programs, allows ESOL students to be included in the regular classroom from day one, often called the immersion strategy.

"They're singled out already (by not speaking the English language)," said Judy Hutchison, lead ESOL teacher at Spring Hill Elementary. "We try to mainstream them as soon as possible."

Hutchison believes that most ESOL students at the elementary or middle school level "soak up" the new language quickly, especially if they're placed with English-speaking children.

The story is a bit different at the high school level, where the academic demands are higher, and where ESOL students often feel intimated or embarrassed to ask questions, affecting their progress. And while immersion also places them in regular classrooms, oftentimes, they must be pulled out into special classes for extra help.

High school students, like their younger counterparts, are not left to fend for themselves. Initially, all ESOL students can get help with "survival skills," such as locating bathrooms or maneuvering in the cafeteria. And, if a school has 15 or more ESOL students who speak a particular language, a paraprofessional is assigned to the school to help with translation in the classroom.

In addition, a host of other services exist to help families, like the H.E.A.R.T. Literacy program for adults and Family Centers at the schools. Parent educator Mini Ferrazano, at Spring Hill Elementary's Family Center, helped David's parents with audio, visual and printed materials. It didn't hurt that Ferrazano also speaks Spanish.

"The materials we have here help parents to help their children, but sometimes the parents need help too," she said. Often, parents and children learn together.

David is one of 504 ESOL students, including foreign exchange students, who are actively serviced in the Hernando County school system this year. Of the ESOL students, 200 have reached accepted English-proficiency levels so they will not need as much attention but will be monitored for two years.

Last year about 300 ESOL students were actively serviced or monitored, according to school officials.

For young David, the future looks good. His parents are very pleased at his progress, especially the last two years at Spring Hill Elementary.

"When he was born, I kept saying to him, "You will be intelligent. You will be somebody,' " Silva said. "Looks like it's going to happen, with God's help."

David Enrique Silva, 8, left, a third-grader at Spring Hill Elementary, last week shows his father, David, and mother, Liser, how to spell the first name of President Bush for his vocabulary homework. His mom thought George was spelled with a "J' instead of a "G.' David moved a couple of years ago from Puerto Rico with his father, mother and 16-year-old sister, Yashira Pino.