Hispanic Students Learning English Is Group's Mission

School aims to help children adjust

TOWN ‘N COUNTRY – Ramon Martinez left Puerto Rico a third-grader.

When he came to the states and a public school, he was put in the second grade. And forced to repeat it.

Martinez can’t forget the feeling – or the tough road to mastering English in his New York City school.

Now 49, Martinez is bent on making sure Hispanic children won’t have to face the same frustration and embarrassment he did – or even contemplate dropping out.

As executive director of Love and Hope Foundation Inc., Martinez intends to open and run a charter school catering to Hispanic students struggling with English in the traditional public school system.

It’s called Latin American Charter School Academy.

“Florida’s No. 4 in the country in terms of [Hispanic] student dropout,” Martinez said. “We’re saying it has to stop.”

If its Hillsborough school district application, which the nonprofit Love and Hope has yet to submit, wins approval this year, Latin American Charter School Academy would serve as many as 120 Town ‘N Country elementary school students at first.

For now, Martinez says, Love and Hope wants to keep its proposed charter school small – with a student teacher ratio of 15 to 1.

Martinez is also busy trying to raise $75,000 in seed money for the charter.

The foundation plans to use three different models to target students with varying degrees of fluency, says Manuel Duran, principal at Desoto Elementary School in south Tampa and vice chairman of Love and Hope’s board.

Those models are a bilingual program that would teach students in Spanish in the mornings and in English in the afternoons; an immersion program that would teach some students in English only; and English Speakers of Other Languages classes, known as ESOL classes.

Martinez said the proposed charter would use Hillsborough’s curriculum but with both English and Spanish texts.

And, he hopes to lure retired ESOL teachers back to the classroom.

Love and Hope’s board members share a vision for the new charter, but, from a variety of backgrounds, they see different needs the school can meet.

Those on the board include prominent educators, community leaders and business people, including Norma Matassini, a professor at the University of Tampa; Lydia Medrano, with Hillsborough County’s Children’s Board; and Iris Cordero, with Chase Manhatten Bank.

Banking and insurance executives quickly hopped on board, Martinez says, because they believe the charter will help create a more bilingual work force.

Duran says he sees the school as an intensive two- or three-year alternative to bring Hispanic students up to speed in English and promptly return them to traditional public classrooms.

Martinez himself says he would like to draw non-Hispanic students to the school, too.

“If you want to learn Spanish, you can come, too,” he said.

The only other charter school dedicated to Hispanic students is in Wimauma and run by Redlands Christian Migrant Association.

Hillsborough has 15 charter schools operating this year, district charter school coordinator Charlene Pirko said.

Charter schools are public schools run by individuals, businesses or even religious groups. They operate free from some red tape but must abide by state health and safety requirements and students must meet state benchmarks. They receive per pupil funding from the state and federal start-up money.

The foundation can be reached at (813) 901-5243.

BETH PERRETTA , [email protected]; Reporter Beth Perretta can be reached at (813) 885-7273.

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