Helen Figueroa is explaining the intricacies of the letter “N.”

“It goes up, down, and up again,” she says, sweeping her right hand toward the ceiling, down, and again ceiling-high.

One boy steps to the marker-board to try his luck crafting a lowercase version. “Turn this way,” Figueroa admonishes the youngsters. “Mira te.”

He inks a sloping, thick blue line on the board, then stops, puzzling. “It’s down, with a little mountain,” Figueroa advises.

This scene springs from the pre-kindergarten class at Riverdale Elementary School in east Orlando. What appears mundane borders on unique. Although Orange County public schools offer 105 pre-K classes, you can count on two hands those staffed with a bilingual teacher.

Figueroa is one of 10. Her job, as she sees it, involves putting a fresh spin on the early bird adage: By introducing English to the largely Spanish-speaking OshKosh set, she figures to catch language shortcomings that could hamper their schooling before her charges ever set foot in a kindergarten classroom.

“The younger they are, the better,” Figueroa says. “They can pick it up easier. They’re like sponges.”

About 25 percent of Riverdale’s student body is Hispanic. Many of the children who attend the pre-K class come from homes where English truly is foreign. Often what English kids know is copped from television or picked up on the playground, Figueroa says. That leads to spotty English, now, but later language deficiencies contribute to a host of historically Hispanic education woes.

According to Child Trends, a Washington, D.C., research group, Hispanics have posted lower high school completion rates than blacks and whites since the early 1970s and have registered higher dropout rates than their counterparts since the mid-1970s.

Much of that, Figueroa thinks, stems from the frustration of trying to comprehend subjects in a language with which you never grew comfortable.

Figueroa incorporates many elements of the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program in her classroom. ESOL is a bilingual program for students whose first language is not English. ESOL classes are taught in English. She places language in a meaningful context — around the room common objects such as a rocking chair, stove and desk are labeled. She throttles down the speed of conversation and repeats words and phrases. And she animates her teaching, with exaggerated body movements, as with the letter “N” lesson.

Having migrated from Puerto Rico to the United States about 17 years ago,
Figueroa keenly identifies with the plight of her pupils.

Back then she spoke English dictionary-style. Show her a cup or chair and she could identify the objects. But she couldn’t have a conversation.

“I learned concepts, not conversation,” she says.

That’s very different from what happens in her class. During circle time,
Figueroa encourages the tykes to talk about the weather, the weekend,
anything, “so they can speak and improve their language,” Figueroa says.

It seems to be working for children such as Natalie DeJesus, 4, who, like the others, thinks the class is just an exercise in organized playtime.

Asked if she enjoys learning new words, she says, “Yes . . . because it’s fun and we play.”

Spoken as fluently and briefly as any 4-year-old.

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