Netbooks to help Pinellas students learn English

Sixth-grader Cristal Santos, 12, and her aunt Jolanda Resendiz pick up Santos’ new loaner netbook during a training session at Oak Grove Middle School in Clearwater on Friday.
Sixth-grader Cristal Santos, 12, and her aunt Jolanda Resendiz pick up Santos’ new loaner netbook during a training session at Oak Grove Middle School in Clearwater on Friday.
Published Jan. 18, 2013

There are certain words found in the science classrooms of Oak Grove Middle School, which, even if you grew up speaking English, can sound a little strange.

If you weren't raised with English, a word like "galaxy" could stop you in your tracks: stop you from understanding an entire lesson, or from finishing your homework.

Trouble understanding words like "galaxy" is a problem Ibrahim Haddad, a shaggy-haired eighth-grader who moved to Clearwater from Baghdad in March, said he's hoping his new netbook will solve.

Oak Grove began distributing 160 Dell netbooks to English Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL students, on Friday. The school system spent $62,000 from a federal grant on software designed to help students learn English while tackling science, social studies, math and other core subject areas.

The middle school enrolls 116 ESOL students, but administrators eyed a larger number of laptops because the population is expected to grow significantly.

Although Oak Grove's enrollment has declined by nearly 200 in the past decade, the number of English-language learners has almost doubled from 66 in 2002-03.

"We're a piece of the pie that's growing, in a shrinking pie," said Natasa Karac, the ESOL program coordinator for Pinellas County schools.

School officials decided to pilot the netbooks at Oak Grove, where one in 10 students are English-language learners (the majority speak Spanish). Karac said administrators would monitor results of both the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and the Comprehensive English Language Learning Assessment, possibly expanding into more schools next year.

The netbooks' signature software is called Tell Me More. After determining their level of expertise, students answer questions designed to improve their writing, reading and listening comprehension.

Not all the questions have right answers, so to speak. In one, students see a photograph of a young man, then hear an audio file ask: "What do you look like?"

They can respond by selecting "Like a human being, not like you!" or "Like myself!" They can also choose "Like a monster" (to which the computer replies, "You don't scare me.").

In other activities, students practice pronouncing words by recording their own speech.

Students received training on the programs at school on Tuesday. But to take home the computers, their parents were required to attend a two-hour session where they promised to return the netbooks in May.

School officials hope students' families will also use the netbooks to improve their English. One program on the computers guides parents through such tasks as acquiring car insurance and identifying "frauds and schemes."

Most of the netbook's programs can be used without an Internet connection.

Signing out a netbook is voluntary, and activities won't be graded. In fact, school officials won't be able to monitor whether students even open the software that doesn't require Internet. But LaSonya Moore, the assistant principal who oversees minority issues, says students are itching to use the netbooks.

"One young lady who doesn't have a computer at home, who gets here early to use the computers here and would like to stay late but can't because of transportation issues, has actually asked one of her teachers if she could borrow her laptop," Moore said.

Jhonny Pedraza, an eighth-grade student from Hidalgo, Mexico, said he hopes the netbook will help him speak more fluently. Pedraza, who sports a gelled Mohawk, said he gets nervous and doesn't speak up as much as he would like to in class.

After attending a training session with his mother and older brother, Haddad said he would regularly log in to Tell Me More.

His English was already coming along. When asked if any of the programs he saw demonstrated looked fun, the 13-year-old boy replied, "Actually, no."

Contact Lisa Gartner at