For some Hispanics trying to succeed in school, no barrier looms larger than English.
Spanish is the first language of many Hispanic students and their parents.
In fact, most of the 11,000 students with limited English skills in Orange County schools are Hispanic.
The county divides bilingual students into two groups. One has some English skills and is taught strictly in English. The other group is taught in its native language.
By law, public school systems must offer bilingual language programs, but instruction techniques vary by state, school district and even among schools in the same district.
In recent years, bilingual education has come under greater scrutiny nationwide. This week, the state is conducting an audit of Orange County’s bilingual programs.
School officials say it is a routine audit.
But tougher state standards are forcing schools to improve their student performance, and bilingual programs are a key component.
“We really focus on the kids. The accountability system is really tied to that,” area superintendent Rosalinda Hernandez said.
The district is examining why bilingual students drop out of school at an even higher rate than Hispanics in standard classes. One contributing factor is the challenge of learning a new language while keeping up academically.
But over the years, students also have stayed in bilingual programs too long, said Hernandez, who oversees the schools in southeast Orange.
She evaluated the records of some middle and high school students in her area, where Hispanic enrollment ranges from 19 percent to 50 percent.
Many had been in bilingual programs for five years or more, when three should be the maximum, Hernandez said.
“You can’t justify that. The students can’t be successful in high school because we aren’t pushing them,” she said.
However, students cannot leave a bilingual program without passing an English skills test.
Pilot programs are under way in some Orange County schools to move students, especially those in high school, to regular classrooms faster.
For example, students with limited English skills are tested in their native language to determine their level of literacy and to pinpoint learning problems that may exist.
The thinking is, students who are well-versed in their native tongue can use those skills to pick up English faster.
In another effort to boost student performance, bilingual students will receive less instruction in their native language each year, until they are learning mostly in English.
Those who are taught in English will shift from mostly listening and speaking English to mostly reading and writing it.
These changes have raised concerns among some Hispanics who fear that students may get shuffled out of special language programs with or without demonstrable English skills.
That’s one reason state Rep. Anthony Suarez, D-Winter Park, earlier this year showed up at a School Board meeting in which Hernandez was to present her proposed changes.
Skeptical of Hernandez’s proposal, Suarez left the meeting with a different opinion.
“I went to the meeting, listened to the stats and how the changes were going to be implemented,” Suarez said. “I walked out of it against bilingual education.”