TALLAHASSEE — The three high school seniors from Armwood High School in Seffner fidgeted and whispered their speech as the lawmakers assembled.
It’s a speech they’ve practiced many times. One student muttered it in her sleep as she napped in the school minivan during the morning drive. On a Monday afternoon in the state Capitol, they’d finally be delivering it to their intended audience: the Florida Senate education committee.
“It just got real,” said Haley Manigold, 18, from Brandon, watching the lawmakers assemble.
Eventually, after their names were called, they made their case: Allow students who are not fluent in English to graduate even if they cannot pass the required 10th-grade reading test.
Before passing the bill, senators amended it so that the testing waiver was optional only for the districts that want it.
“We have authored this bill to help correct what we see as a gross injustice,” said Madison Harvey, 18, of Seffner.
Their bill will "help close the achievement gap for a group of young people who are anxious to continue their path toward their American Dream,” said Maria Medina, 17 of Tampa.
Earlier in the day, the students met with Rep. Susan Valdes, D-Tampa, who is sponsoring their bill in the House. She talked strategy with them in her office— “maybe send letters to the House again” — before taking them down to the House floor.
This is one of the best parts for social studies teacher Tony Pirotta, who has been leading the club of students to write and propose bills for the past 10 years. He loves seeing their faces light up when they see the stately seats and the light-up boards that display the votes.
“I (told the students), ‘Guys, you come to me and tell me how you don’t like ... this policy or that policy. You realize you have the power to change that. But it involves participation.'"
At a time when the political discourse has become a maelstrom of cable news and Twitter fights that stream over a backdrop of impeachment proceedings in Washington, Pirotta said the pilgrimages to Tallahassee with his students give him increased faith in “the process.”
But that’s not to say they haven’t faced pushback and red tape. The club proposed a similar bill to lawmakers earlier this year, but it never made it past the drafting stage.
Testing students who are not proficient in English has been an issue lawmakers have considered for a decade, yet bills proposing alternatives, such as allowing students to be tested in their native languages, have gone nowhere. Those proposals would cost money to translate tests into Florida’s many languages and to grade them properly.
But the students have faith that their solution, which requires no new tests or funding, is the right one. They were inspired by the struggle of one of their fellow classmates, an immigrant from Cuba who they said has a 4.0 GPA but has struggled to understand the questions on the reading test, which she has failed several times.
“It is just this one test holding her back," Harvey said. "If you didn’t grow up with this then it’s so much harder.”
During Monday’s committee meeting, lawmakers went back and forth on the bill, expressing concerns that perhaps allowing English language learners a different route could remove a powerful incentive for them to assimilate.
“If you look at waves of immigrants, when they’ve gone to places where they had no choice (but to speak English), they rise because they’re forced to learn the language,” said Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah.
The bill would still require these students to take the reading test so they can be compared to their peers, but would remove it as a graduation requirement. To qualify for that waiver, students would have to take a separate test that measures their English reading comprehension.
But eventually, the lawmakers agreed that the idea was something they’d like keep discussing. It passed unanimously.
Afterwards, the students chattered about the ways the Legislature defied their expectations, such as how some lawmakers didn’t seem to know as much about school testing policy as they did. Still, they were optimistic.
“The people who are cynics about politics are also the ones who complain the most," Manigold said. "We really have to work on getting the youth motivated to make change.”