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Hispanic students brave a new world

At Leto High School, almost half the students are Hispanic. They plunge into English one day at a time and absorb a new culture.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2001

TAMPA -- It is 7:30 in the morning and Astrid Mora pores over a paperback copy of Little Women, looking for answers to a quiz. The Leto High School 10th-grader speeds through the questions.

[Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
Leto High School students, from left, Natalia Alvarez and Cesar Jaramillo practice their English while playing a game in class on Friday.
When the 15-year-old with shiny black hair arrived in the United States from Venezuela with her family a year and a half ago, English was as foreign as her new country.

Not anymore.

On this day, Astrid sits in the front row of Bernadette Gaudion's first-period English class, absorbing all she can. She hopes to become a psychologist, or perhaps a doctor. But she remembers vividly that first day of school in September 1999, when she stared at the words and listened to the teachers, and understood nothing.

"I was so scared," said Astrid, who is now bilingual. "I just remember saying to a teacher, "I don't speak any, any English.'

"People laugh at you because you don't know English. And sometimes you cry because you don't understand."

It was hardly news to Hillsborough school officials when census officials revealed last week that Florida's Hispanic population had jumped 70 percent since 1990. Local schools have been grappling with the influx for years.

At Leto High School, 46 percent of the students are Hispanic, the most of any of Hillsborough's 20 high schools. Throughout the district, 24 percent of the students are Hispanic.

Although most of the Hispanic students were born in the United States and are fluent in English, there has been a sharp increase in the number who are immigrants. Many walk in on the first day of school unable to write or speak any English.

School district data show 3,500 students had limited English ability in 1988. This year, that figure is 17,500. Ninety percent of these children are Hispanic.

Immigrant high schoolers are immersed in English in all their subjects, but they are placed also in special English and writing classes known as English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL. The classes are smaller. Reading troublesome sentences again and again is emphasized. Recordings of the passages the students are reading are played. And visual aids help them make sense of the words.

Looming over everything is the state's standardized test, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

"The FCAT test is awful," Mrs. Gaudion said. "If they don't pass it, they don't get a diploma. It's hard. And with minimal English? I can't just hold up pictures of dogs and cats."

It's a struggle against an unforgiving clock. But spending a day at Leto High School gives glimpses of the students behind the census numbers. As immigrant students strive to succeed in a new world in a new language, there are frequently small moments of inspiration.

An advantage in Romance

It is second period on a Friday. Rafael Amengual Jr., a round-faced 11th grader with a goatee who arrived from Chile in 1997 with no English skills, sits in Thomai Batianis' French II class.

French came easy to Rafael because, like Spanish, it is a Romance language with roots in Latin. He has an A in French. But a year ago, Rafael would not speak in class -- in French or English. Instead he would memorize conversations from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air television show and repeat them to girls he liked, not knowing exactly what he was saying.

In class today, Ms. Batianis asks Rafael, in French, "What do you do in your day?"

Rafael is off and running. He tells how he goes to the kitchen in the morning, eats steak, then heads to school, where he greets his favorite teacher with, "Bonjour, mademoiselle!" and watches the girls walk past.

"Merci, merci," Ms. Batianis said, half-laughing, after a couple of minutes. She tries to end the conversation. Rafael plows on, then stops and admits, "I talk too much in French class."

Rafael wants to go to college and eventually become a high school teacher, someone like Ms. Batianis, he said.

"She's a great teacher," Rafael said.

English that slips into subconscious

The bell rings, and it's third period.

Down the hallway and up the stairs, Yaisbel Herrera, a 16-year-old from Cuba who wears blue mascara, is silently reading a short story, The Lady or the Tiger, in her intensive reading class.

A girl who sits near her in English calls Yaisbel "the smartest girl in the class. It's amazing."

Yaisbel doesn't remember exactly when English slipped into her brain.

It came out of nowhere, almost like a dream.

"It just came," she said, very happy that it did. "It's very hard, but it's worth it."

Customs travel with students

Downstairs, Mrs. Gaudion is waiting outside her classroom for her fourth-period English students. A girl from Brazil, a boy from Vietnam and a girl from Colombia enter the classroom. As the students file past Mrs. Gaudion, some hug her or kiss her on the cheek, gestures which are common in their countries.

"Where's my little man?" Mrs. Gaudion asked.

She is looking for Wilbert Rodriguez, a ninth-grader from Cuba.

Last year, when Mrs. Gaudion tried to ask Wilbert questions, other students would interrupt and say, "He doesn't speak English."

That has changed.

The previous day, after Mrs. Gaudion jokingly told a visitor that Wilbert spoke only Spanish, he smiled and walked away, not giving into her bait to show off his English.

"He really does speak beautiful English," she said. "Part of his problem is, he is shy."

Later that day, after Mrs. Gaudion handed out a reading quiz, Wilbert became upset when some of his classmates would not stop chatting.

"I cannot concentrate when (he) is talking," Wilbert said in nearly perfect English.

"See," Mrs. Gaudion said in triumph.

Bilingual teachers provide tutoring

Upstairs in Room 224 -- which is the size of a large closet -- many of the school's non-English-speaking students find refuge. Bilingual teaching assistants are available throughout the day to help mentor or tutor.

When students first arrive at the school with no English skills, the teaching assistants will walk them to class and translate for them at the office. As their skills improve, the students need the assistants less and less, but most of them continue to come once a week for tutoring.

Sometimes, said Gisel Montenegro, one of the assistants, the students just want to talk about missing their countries or the difficulties they are having in living in the United States.

Today, Darlyn Rodriguez has come to get tested for improvements in his English. Darlyn, a shy 16-year-old from the Dominican Republic, has been in the United States six months.

Ms. Montenegro, who left Cuba as a child, leads Darlyn to a quiet side room, opens up a book of pictures and asks him a series of questions.

Darlyn breezes through the first questions about identifying animals, describing his clothes and reciting the days of the week.

"Answer this in a complete sentence," Ms. Montenegro said. "Do you know how to fly a helicopter?"

"No, I do not know how to fly a helicopter," Darlyn said.

"Okay, here's the biggie of all questions," Ms. Montenegro said. "What is the plural of mouse?"

"Mice," he said with ease.

Darlyn's stumbling block? Telling time on a clock.

New language, new history

It is sixth period. The school day is about to end.

Rafael Amengual Jr. sits in the back of Todd Price's American history class, listening intently to today's lesson on America's involvement in Vietnam.

Rafael said he knew little of the country's history. Just last week he learned that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, not Washington, D.C.

Mr. Price asks the class about the communist rule of North Vietnam and the anti-communist rule of South Vietnam in the 1960s.

"Mr. Price," Rafael asked, "is South Vietnam still that way today?"

"Well, we'll just have to find out over the next few days," Mr. Price replied.

The seven-hour school day ends. It is Friday, but Rafael has only one plan for the weekend ahead.

"To study," he said.

-- Melanie Ave covers education and can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or

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