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    Teachers struggling to instruct immigrants

    Educators at Belcher Elementary, where nearly 30 percent of students were born outside the United States, say they have trouble meeting the needs of all the non-English speaking students.

    By MONIQUE FIELDS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 5, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- Heather Rosenhoch is responsible for teaching 20 kindergarten students. Her young scribes must learn how to identify the alphabet, count to 10 and understand that a bike and a car move at different speeds.

    Rosenhoch accepts the challenge every day, along with a few she hadn't planned for. Eight of her students speak little or no English.

    The effects on her class at Belcher Elementary are visible. Many of her Spanish-speaking students cluster together on a rug. When they have a question, they turn to their neighbors for help. They raise their hands less often.

    No one questions the abilities of all the students to learn, but teachers at Belcher say they don't have the resources to help so many non-English speakers.

    Such a high number of students in a program called English for Speakers of Other Languages slows Rosenhoch's class some days and affects the learning curve for all of her students.

    "If I only had three (ESOL) children, it would go quickly," she said. "We could cover more ground."

    Nearly 30 percent of Belcher's students were born outside the United States, and many of them are in kindergarten and first grade. For at least two years, Belcher parents and teachers have sought relief and requested rezoning.

    Some parents are concerned that all the attention given to ESOL students takes away from the education of others.

    "The other children get bored, because they understand," said Roberta Conner, president of the school's Parent-Teacher Association.

    A zoning proposal would send about 100 Belcher students to Skycrest Elementary School next year, but parents and teachers won't know for sure until Feb. 27 when the Pinellas County School Board is expected to vote on proposed school zoning changes.

    Meanwhile, Belcher teachers find themselves giving more of their attention to their ESOL students.

    "I don't ignore the other children, but there is only so much time in the day," said Theresa Skala, a third-grade teacher at Belcher.

    Of her 24 children, six are in the ESOL program. Another seven have learned enough English to be released from the program. Still, most are one or two grade levels behind.

    Skala's ESOL students rely on each other for translation, an act frowned upon by teachers. The translator needs to pay attention to the lesson. The person on the receiving end doesn't take risks and learn English.

    "They are almost too comfortable with having Spanish-speaking friends in here," Skala said.

    A high concentration of ESOL students is forcing Rosenhoch and other teachers to make difficult choices.

    Her children recently counted by fives along with recorded music.

    After the music, she enlisted volunteers to count by fives. She called on a few but noticed some did not raise their hands. Instead of moving on, she kept asking for volunteers until most of them counted.

    The lesson went on for about 10 minutes longer than needed, time that could have been spent on something else. But to Rosenhoch it was worth it.

    "I made a choice, that would give all children a chance to be successful," she said.

    At the end of the day, Rosenhoch evaluates her teaching and wonders whether she met all of the children's individual needs.

    "Am I giving them enough time?" Rosenhoch asks herself.

    The answer is no.

    "I'm only one person, but you beat yourself up anyway," she said.

    The problem continues in the school's ESOL classes, where teachers use every strategy they can find to help their students learn English. Still, large class sizes too often dilute the effect of the lessons.

    Karen White, an ESOL teacher for grades 1-4, has 17 ESOL students in the morning and another 23 in the afternoon. She can handle 17 students but any more stretches her thin.

    So White modifies her lessons. In cases where teacher-to-pupil interaction would be best, she uses a group approach that develops the students' listening skills, "but it's not giving them a chance to have a conversation."

    After months of repetition, a student will learn English and become a chatterbox. The student will invite her teacher to lunch or just sit down and start talking. Which is great, but it is also stressful for a teacher with too many children.

    "There's only so much of me to go around," White said. "It takes energy to sit there and listen. I know she needs it, but I have 24 of those."

    This year, Lisa Clarkson's kindergarten ESOL classes grew to 14 students each, nearly the size of a regular kindergarten class. So she decided to form a fourth class so that she could teach nine children or fewer for 70 minutes -- 20 minutes shorter than the state requires.

    "When you're in a smaller group, the children have more opportunities to express themselves," she said.

    It would be nice to have them for the other 20 minutes each day, but she can't concentrate on vocabularly and give students the one-on-one attention they need when her classes are so large.

    "They learn by doing," she said.

    So for now, her children have less time to practice their English independently or share their English with other students.

    "We could take them so much farther if there were fewer," she said.

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