PALM BEACH GARDENS—Dennis Petrunger’s high school English students speak very little English. And Petrunger’s not fluent in anything but.
So Petrunger, a teacher at Palm Beach Gardens High, has become adept at playing a kind of elaborate game of charades.
Rather than plunge into a Halloween werewolf tale, Petrunger tries first to put the tale in context, asking his students from Honduras, Puerto Rico and Haiti if they have folk tales about people turning to animals.
To help them visualize the monster, he scowls and claws at the air as he describes a fierce man-turned-beast. He wrinkles his nose in an exaggerated sniff, talking about the creature’s heightened senses. Then he turns to something he’s sure they’re familiar with: movies.
”Have you seen the movie, Michelle Pfeiffer and Jack Nicholson?” he prods.
Looks go around, but no bells ring. Then a boy from Haiti speaks up: ”One playing basketball?” Bingo. Michael J. Fox as a teen wolf.
More than 18,000 students come to Palm Beach County’s public schools speaking little or no English. Once in the classroom, they are expected to learn the same things every other student must. And they usually do it in a classroom much like Petrunger’s – one where almost all of the lesson is given in English by a teacher who speaks only English.
The method is called ”English immersion,” and it’s one of a variety used across the country to teach students who don’t come to school fluent in the language. And it is a method that has gained attention after voters in California rejected another method, ”bilingual education.”
Unlike California, Florida doesn’t dictate what methods schools may use to teach these students.
Schools here could use the bilingual approach, in which students learn subjects such as math and science in their native languages while taking additional classes to master English.
When it’s done right, the research says, this is a superior way to teach these students. They don’t miss out on the content of lessons while trying to learn English, said Deborah Short, with the Center for Applied Language in Washington, D.C. Problems surface when schools let students use the crutch of native-language classes for too long and fail to teach students English.
In districts such as Palm Beach County, where students arrive speaking more than 80 different languages, teaching students in their native tongues can also pose a logistical nightmare.
So all but a handful of the district’s schools rely on immersing students in English. It can take students longer to pick up all the information they could’ve gotten if the class were taught in their native language, Short said. But if it is done right, they will get it.
Administrators, however, can’t just plunk students in the middle of a class and expect them to absorb.
Petrunger is one of eight teachers at Palm Beach Gardens High and 678 in the county specially trained to teach these students.
Every elementary teacher and every English or language teacher in middle or high school must have 300 hours of training in teaching students who speak English as a second language. And teachers in other subjects need at least 60 hours of such training if they have students who are still learning English in their classes.
The teachers learn to use more visuals. If they talk about something that is red, they hold up a piece of red construction paper or point to something in that color.
They learn to repeat phrases often, write them up on the board for reference. They learn to be more animated. Try to engage the students in conversation so that they practice their second language.
Though the state doesn’t require these teachers to speak a second language, Gardens administrators have worked to hedge their advantage with these students by hiring bilingual teachers when possible, said Bobbi Shames, who coordinates the school’s English as a Second Language program. They can’t teach in anything but English, but they can use another language to clarify their points and instructions.
And the teachers aren’t always on their own. The state allows schools with more than 15 students speaking the same language to hire facilitators.
With 293 students who have limited English skills, Palm Beach Gardens High has three facilitators. Two speak Creole, the other Spanish.
They work in the largest classes with the students who speak the least English.
At Gardens, the students with the fewest English skills – about 160 students
– are in separate classes. There, they may get their history from a textbook written at a middle school level, or their math lessons may go at a slower pace.
The teacher may take time to go over the vocabulary of addition, multiplication and division that others take for granted.
In a year or two, the students in the English-immersion classes usually move into regular classrooms, but administrators must continue to track their progress for two more years.
Students quickly pick up pieces of a second language, and before a year or two is up their hallway conversations may make many seem fluent, Shames said.
But that can be deceptive. While school-yard conversation can be mastered in that time, it may take five to seven years to be fluent in the language of the classroom – where the vocabulary and topics are more vast and precise, Shames said.
Not all schools in the county separate their non-English speaking students. Some choose to pull the students out of class for intensive English instruction for part of the day, but put them in mainstream classes the rest.
Other schools, particularly elementaries, sometimes put a specially trained teacher in with the regular teacher. The two share teaching duties in a way that gives special attention to the students still learning English.
This diversity makes comparing different methods difficult, Short said.
The state says that these students can’t be held back a grade or failed just because they’re unable to master English. But it also holds them to the same standards to graduate. No matter how new they are to the country or the language, students must pass the High School Competency Test and earn 24 credits to graduate.
”Some of my brightest kids have a tough time,” Shames said. ”I try to imagine myself in a Russian classroom trying to pass the HSCT. I’m highly educated. And I’m sure I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even begin to try.”