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How diverse are public schools in Tampa Bay? The number of languages students speak may surprise you.

Students of many nationalities attend public schools in the Tampa Bay area, forcing educators to adapt. For instance, the Hillsborough County school system includes students who speak nearly 200 languages as their native tongue. About 100 languages are spoken by students in Pinellas County schools. “As we see shifts in populations, shifts in representations of countries, then we have to shift,” says Sandra Rosario, Hillsborough’s supervisor of programs for English Language Learners. [Times (2004)]
Published Jul. 23

Think diversity in schools, and you wouldn't be faulted if your mind turned first to race and income.

Those criteria are, after all, the main ones that governments use.

But schools also face the challenge of dealing with the needs of children from dozens of other countries, speaking something other than English, which remains the primary language for classroom instruction.

Hillsborough County schools, for instance, had nearly 49,000 students in 2018-19 who spoke one of 197 languages as their native tongue. Pinellas County schools had students enrolled who were born in 154 countries other than the United States, speaking 99 different languages at home.

Even smaller districts such as Pasco and Hernando counties faced similar scenarios. Pasco, for example, had about 11,000 students for whom English was their second language, coming from 145 other nations.

The vast majority are Spanish speakers — more than 7,000 in Pasco, nearly 40,000 in Hillsborough. But other languages also have big representation, including Vietnamese, Arabic, Haitian-Creole and several Indian dialects.

For a while, schools faced influxes from Syria and Egypt. More recently, there's been a rise in Venezuelans.

Wherever they arrive from, the schools have the same mission in mind.

"Our goal is to make sure our students are successful in their new society and new culture," said Natasa Karac, English for Speakers of Other Languages specialist for Pinellas County schools.

That endeavor takes on different shapes, depending on a student's background.

A child who came to Florida from a developed nation where schooling took place regularly might face problems with language more than literacy. Think someone from Germany, who probably took English lessons for years but still reads and comprehends better in German.

A child arriving as a refugee from an impoverished or war-torn area, by contrast, usually has greater needs. The numbers from places such as Congo in Africa have started to tick up, officials said, and those children sometimes are barely fluent in their own tongue, much less familiar with learning in English.

"We have immigrants who are coming who have never been in school," said Sandra Rosario, Hillsborough County supervisor of programs for English Language Learners. "That's a whole different approach. We're still working on that."

To reach this broad range of students, districts have implemented a variety of programs and services. They range from the expected intensive English courses, and bilingual aides for schools with 15 or more students in the same language, to other offerings that may not be as obvious.

Pasco schools, for instance, provide engagement coaches to help schools determine the best ways to get parents involved in the school experience. Many times, parents are equally uninformed about the way that U.S. education works, and benefit from guidance about everything from talking to teachers to understanding expectations and even cultural differences, said Katty Chois, the district's coordinator of programs for English Language Learners and migrants.

"We teach them about schools and Pasco County," Chois said.

All the districts recognize they can't have people on staff for every language spoken. So each contracts with a translator service that is available by phone 24 hours a day, and gives access to all teachers for parent conferences, letter-writing assistance and other needs.

Hernando County schools also have the Rosetta Stone software programs available to assist with language learning. Pinellas County schools have lately added advanced programs that target students still learning English, Karac said.

"We are making sure they also have opportunities for acceleration and enrichment," she explained.

The most fully formed of these offerings is a summertime camp focusing on sciences and math, while also relying on English as a second language teachers and their skills. The idea is gaining wider acceptance and is expected to expand, along with other ideas, Karac said.

Sometimes, the lessons are more basic, Rosario said.

In some countries, students are not permitted to ask questions of their teachers, she said. In others, they don't switch teachers for different classes. Providing that information is just as critical to getting students acclimated as instructing them.

Teaching students about everyday English language, which differs from academic English, also comes into the picture. Many schools offer such tutoring and other supports, in addition to helping students and families make connections to other organizations in the community that can also assist them.

The learning can go the other way, too.

Some local teachers have limited exposure to certain other cultures, the experts said. So the districts also provide added training to those teachers, so they know more than the 300 hours of English for Speakers of Other Languages course work they're required to complete.

"It's teaching our teachers how to be culturally responsive," Chois said.

As a package, Karac said, the effort makes a difference for students. The latest state testing data showed Pinellas English learners making better gains than the state average, with graduation rates in the subgroup also outperforming the state.

The key, Rosario said, is remaining nimble.

"As we see shifts in populations, shifts in representations of countries," she said, "then we have to shift."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com. Folow @JeffSolochek.

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