1. The Education Gradebook

All day, all Spanish program is an alternative for some Hillsborough teens

Teacher Mercedes Prado scribbled the numbers in columns on the board like a math problem.

Suppose a student scored 410 on each of five components of his GED test. Would that add up to the 2,250 he needs to pass? "How many points is he missing?" she asked.

The question was not completely hypothetical. Student Renato Comas had just learned he was 30 points short because of a low math score. "I ran out of time," he told Prado, who is advising him on how to beat the clock the next time.

Comas and Prado are part of a program at Leto High School that is unique to Hillsborough County. The class, given in Spanish, prepares students to take their General Educational Development tests. But unlike most Spanish GED classes, it's offered during regular, daytime school hours.

"They are a part of the school, and we are happy we are able to keep them," said principal Victor Fernandez, who sees this as one of multiple strategies to serve new immigrants who struggle with graduation requirements. "Thanks to the Spanish GED, they are able to stay in school and move ahead to higher education."

The 16- and 17-year-olds include kids who fear they won't pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in reading, which they need to graduate, and is given exclusively in English. Unlike FCAT, the GED test can be taken in Spanish.

Others are in the program because they fell behind in credits as their families emigrated and moved around the country. Some are learning-disabled.

"We have all different situations," said Prado, who was born in Cuba and spoke in Spanish. In rare instances, a student is proficient in English, but uncomfortable in the English-language GED class.

While the GED process generally begins at age 18, a school district can grant waivers to students, who must put in a minimum number of class hours and take a pretest before they're cleared for the exam.

Passing gives the kids a better shot at community college, trade school or a job.

"We want everybody to be with at least some kind of diploma," said Pam Peralta, the district's general director of career, technical and adult education. "It's absolutely a critical step to your future career pathway."

The Leto program, now in its third year, also satisfies parents' desire to have their teenagers at school during the day. "It appeases them, because it's tough for a parent coming in with a 17-year-old," said assistant principal Walter Balser, who emphasized that the decision comes entirely from the family.

While the kids cannot participate in extracurricular sports and clubs, many qualify for free lunch. Those who live near a Leto bus route get transportation.

"When you say, 'full-time, during the day, with transportation, lunch and books,' right away they're open to understanding that they might need to consider an alternative," Balser said.

Nationwide, daytime Spanish GED programs have been around for years, but their growth lost momentum during the recession years, said Gary Ayre, a Phoenix-based director for the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education.

The idea of a Spanish GED generates controversy at times. "It generally comes from employers in segments of the United States who would like for their employees to be fluent in English," he said.

"However, in your part of the world and mine, Florida and Arizona, employers really want workers who can speak both Spanish and English, and serve their customers better."

At Leto, students can also take English as a Second Language classes at night.

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On a recent morning, about half of Prado's 34 students were in her classroom. Most were male. Their places of origin were Cuba, Puerto Rico, Colombia and Peru.

As in most any high school class, two students were sound asleep. The others worked through a progression of practice tests, with Prado correcting their work. The hardest subject, most said, is math.

GED class is not free; it costs between $45 and $180 per semester, depending on how long a student has lived in Florida. Tests cost between $14 for a retest of a single subject and $70 for all five, with some breaks given to legal refugees.

In the course of the day, Prado advises the kids on test-taking strategies. Keep track of time, she tells them. Buy the same calculator they will give you at the test — a Casio fx-260 solar, which sells for about $10 — and practice using it.

She takes them through the fine art of bubbling in those unknown answers to get the best possible benefit when guessing.

She also provides information on career courses at Leto and elsewhere. A counselor came in this year from Hillsborough Community College. That's where Renato Comas wants to go once he passes the math test. "For nursing," he said.

Like any good teacher, Prado does a little bit of social work, too. She interacts with parents. She lets the students tell her about their weekends and, sometimes, their problems at home.

A chemistry teacher back in Cuba, 46-year-old Prado understands how hard it is to start life over in a new language. And as a mother of two, she knows the challenge of raising adolescents.

Anthony Jimenez, 16, is the English speaker. "I'm here because I quit school after three years of failing," he said. "I was lazy."

Now he can look ahead to either college or a job in a factory with his father.

He could have taken the English GED class, he said. But he didn't like the students in the program. "I like this class better."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or