It took almost two years and two state audits to get the Orange County School Board to pay attention, but finally it is focusing on problems plaguing students learning English as a second language.
Last week, School Superintendent Ron Blocker unveiled a plan to monitor tightly the five programs that exist. Those that aren’t working will be tossed out and the others strengthened. School Board members had plenty of questions at the Thursday workshop. Most of them seem to get it. Hallelujah! The district also will re-start a transitional bilingual program in the one area of the county that had discarded that needed program for middle-school students: the east side, which has a large Hispanic population. But the system’s problems don’t affect only Hispanic kids. There are more than 18,000 students in Orange County who are learning English. Students who speak only Haitian-Creole, Vietnamese, Portuguese, French and other languages also are being shortchanged.
Not all of those students can transition into English while strengthening their own native-language skills because there aren’t sufficient teachers who speak all of those other languages. But the bulk of those students are Spanish speakers, and there are economies of scale that can be both cost effective and educationally sound. Those students can learn English, for instance, while learning science and math in Spanish until they’ve mastered English. Right now, students are expected to learn complex scientific concepts in a language they don’t yet understand.
That’s nuts. Is it any wonder that the graduation rate for students learning English is 29 percent in Orange County? And only 43 percent of students who complete ESOL programs and are “mainstreamed” into regular classes graduate. The statewide average is 52.3 percent.
Five years ago, Blocker’s predecessor decentralized the school system into five areas to give more local control to principals and get more parents involved. Unfortunately, the results haven’t been that great for kids learning English. Each area seems to be doing its own thing, with little accountability.
Blocker has tapped Deborah Manuel, a deputy superintendent who oversees instruction and curriculum, to head the monitoring effort and report back this summer. Manuel’s first step was impressive. She called parents involved in the Parent Leadership Council, which represents the families of kids learning English for the first time, and she wants to meet with business and civic leaders, too. “We’ll meet weekly if we have to,” Manuel told me.
The stakes are high. Under a new state rule, students learning English as a second language must take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test after just one year of English instruction. The state used to allow two years.
There are virtually no bilingual programs in Central Florida for high-school students to keep up with math and science in their native language as they learn English. Most are ESOL programs in which teachers use special techniques, such as drawings and hand motions to communicate with students.
Orange County School Board member Rick Roach said a recent visit to an ESOL class opened his eyes to the high-school students’ frustration. “It brought tears to their eyes when they began to talk about how stupid they felt, how much of a failure they felt to not understand English,” he said.
Monitoring will be key, but so will consequences. Those principals and area superintendents who continue to ignore a growing problem don’t deserve their jobs. It will be up to Blocker to show them that mediocrity and excuses won’t be tolerated.