Wilnilda Rivera was an honor-roll student in Puerto Rico before moving to Orlando. Today, the 18-year-old is a Central Florida dropout. The discount-store clerk gave up in 11th grade, after attending four schools in three years. She believes that the English for Speakers of Other Languages program failed her.

Rivera’s friend and co-worker, Sugey Pichardo, 20, arrived from the Dominican Republic in 1997. She spent half a year in 12th grade at one Orange County high school, then moved to New York and attended school there before moving back to Orlando. She graduated here but says that her New York school was better at teaching English and that ESOL is a bust.

The two young women went before state Rep. Anthony Suarez’s Bilingual Education Task Force last week to talk about their ESOL experiences. The program focuses on teaching students English, but teachers do not have to speak a student’s language to teach ESOL. The rest of the school day, ESOL students are taught other required subjects entirely in English.

Anyone who has tried to learn a second language in high school knows how difficult that can be. Now imagine having to take science, math and social studies in a foreign language without yet being fluent in that language.

Rivera and Pichardo said that the majority of students in their ESOL classes preferred to speak Spanish in class. They told me all of this in Spanish, after the task force meeting. But during the meeting, as they grappled to explain themselves in English, they seemed to be blaming their bilingual ESOL teachers for not pushing students hard enough to learn English. Later, they told me that’s not what they meant.

Confused yet?

There’s more. Gabriela Nunez, Suarez’s legislative aide, told the task force that she breezed through ESOL, taking it for just one year in 10th grade after arriving from Puerto Rico. She was then placed in regular classes and graduated in 1994. I think there are a lot of factors that affect student performance, she told me. Family support is so important. The cultural change is difficult, and I had low grades in many of my classes that first year, but my ESOL teachers, who were bilingual, helped me a lot.”

With Hispanics having the highest dropout rate among all ethnic/racial groups in Orange County, there’s no time to waste. Students’ lack of English proficiency, high mobility rates that interfere with learning — as seems to have happened to Rivera — and the need for strong family and community support are critical factors.

Ideally, more schools would provide dual-language programs for all students, Hispanic or not. That’s not a social program — it’s an investment in Florida’s economic prosperity in a global economy.

Suarez and his task force chairman, Delia Romero, a bilingual education expert, want more dual language programs, particularly at the middle- and high-school levels.

So does Rosalinda Hernandez, the area superintendent for schools in east Orange County, which has a rapidly growing Hispanic population. But as Hernandez points out, with a national teacher shortage, it’s difficult enough finding qualified teachers for regular classes.

Finding bilingual teachers qualified to teach in both languages is a huge challenge. It may mean having one teacher whose strength is English and another whose strength is Spanish teaching the same classroom. That would be an expensive proposition, one that the community would have to support.

Right now, there’s not even a consensus within the Hispanic community on which direction to head, and Hernandez keeps getting hammered by both sides in this debate. That’s not fair to her, and it’s certainly not fair to students.

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