BROOKSVILLE—Six months ago, 5-year-old Adneris Abrahante could say only two words that her English-speaking friends could understand her name.

Eleventh-grader Liba Hucko spoke only Slovak and Russian.

So did her 10-year-old brother, Igor.

For most schoolchildren, just keeping up with their daily subjects is hard enough. But about 100 other Hernando County students have an added burden understanding the English language.

Bea Blackburn, who this year was named to head up the county’s program for ESOL, or English to Speakers of Other Languages, says the number of children in the district whose first language is not English is growing at a furious pace.

“When it started in September, we had 62 people in the program. By February, we were up to 104,” said Blackburn, who taught Spanish for 18 years, the last eight in Hernando County.

Almost all of the ESOL students are native Spanish speakers, and a majority of those are from Puerto Rico, Blackburn said.

But there are also a sprinkling of other nationalities, including the Hucko family from Czechoslovakia, one Vietnamese student, some Mexican students, a Peruvian, and a handful of European students here on exchange programs.

At Westside Elementary School, kindergarten teacher Kimberly Eicholtz is involved in a pilot ESOL program.

Eicholtz’s class of 27 5- and 6-year-olds includes 10 Spanish-speaking children who started the year with little or no English-speaking ability.

“Adneris could only tell you her name, and not her age” when she started here, says Eicholtz’s full-time Spanish-speaking aide, Carmen Tricoche.

Now Adneris talks as much as anyone.

Seated with her class in a circle on the floor, she raises her hand, then carefully recites the 12 months in a quiet, tiny voice.

“Many of them are traumatized at first because of the language barrier,” said Tricoche, who drills the 10 Spanish-speaking students for an hour a day. “But since I speak their language I can act just like a friend.”

“The hardest thing with the ABC’s is that I thought this was a “Y,”‘ says 6-year-old Carlos Cruz, tracing a “U” on his desk top. “And this was a “U,”‘ he explains, tracing a “Y.”

“I still don’t know that,” he adds.

The ESOL elementary school program will take place in Westside and Brooksville Primary next year. But ESOL students from all over the district will be sent to the two schools by shuttle bus. Each class will have a teacher trained in ESOL techniques, which stress foreign-language teaching methods, and a full-time bilingual teaching aide, Blackburn said.

This year, elementary school children, who make up about half the ESOL students, are excused from their classrooms for one to four hours a day for English instruction with mostly Spanish-speaking teacher aides.

Middle school and high school students spend one hour a day in a special ESOL class, run by an English or foreign language teacher, where they are taught English, using such methods as flash cards and computers.

Students operate the computer not with a keyboard but by touching the screen, which activates a simple, illustrated story spoken by an electronic voice that will repeat words or phrases if the screen is touched again.

Foreign language teachers say the “touch-screen” computer lets slower students work on their own, and frees teachers to spend more time with others.

“A lot of times the kids have a good social vocabulary, but not an academic one,” said Springstead High School’s Sally Williams, who teaches a supplementary English course for ESOL students that stresses academic language.

The supplemental English class will be offered at each high school next year, Blackburn said.

Liba Hucko, who moved with her brother and parents from Czechoslovakia to Masaryktown in November, said she had studied English before, but couldn’t speak it.

“When I first came to school, I wasn’t talking any English,” said the 16-year-old, who still has a Czech accent but now speaks quickly and easily.

Hucko is enrolled in the ESOL class at Hernando High.

Although many middle and high school ESOL students speak English fluently, they are sometimes self-conscious about their accents, and how well they will blend in socially with other students.

“I think you are not going to get any friends. I think they will say, “You speak Spanish. I’m not going to be your friend,”‘ recalled Springstead High School 10th-grader Reyheri Matos about his first impressions of school here.

But he says that never happened.

“I feel comfortable with my friends here,” he said.

Blackburn, whose father came from Spain, acknowledges that the ESOL program can be controversial.

“The quote I always hear is, “If these people chose to come to our country, then they should be responsible for learning English.”

But she said, “these people are here, whether by choice or not. ESOL will help turn them into productive citizens.”

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