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Osceola County Enrolls More Puerto Rican Students More Than Halfway Into The School Year

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8th grader Johanelys Soto and her language arts Teacher Lourdes Alvarez at Neptune Middle School.

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Neptune Middle School 8th grader Johanelys Soto and her language arts Teacher Lourdes Alvarez sit side by side in a classroom at a round table with bright yellow chairs. Student artwork plasters the walls. The lesson: essay writing.

Alvarez is reiterating to Soto that she needs to find her ‘claim’ in her thesis statement. Soto agrees saying, you can’t do an essay without first identifying your claim.

“You can’t do the essay without your claim because what are you going to explain or what you gonna have evidence for what?” said Soto.

Alvarez is a teacher for the Osceola County School District’s ESOL program—English for Speakers of Other Languages. She’s Puerto Rican herself. Soto came here in September. She’s a bit bashful and all smiles with black-rimmed glasses and braces.

“I was really nervous. I didn’t know how things were here and then I came to class and they were very friendly and I felt like in Puerto Rico,” said Soto.

Alvarez said most of her students are Puerto Rican. She’s giving them sample prompts to practice for upcoming state standardized tests. Students who have been enrolled in a U.S. school for less than a year can get an exemption from reading and writing tests. But some still take up the challenge with a dictionary in hand. Those state language arts exams don’t count toward their report card grades.

“They still take it in English but they’re not scared, they’re confident because in my class we’re constantly working on those skills, so at least they know what is expected,” said Alvarez.

58 percent of the students in Osceola County are Hispanic, mostly Puerto Rican. A quarter of the district’s 60 thousand students are considered English language learners. Test scores from these students, who’ve been here less than a year, don’t affect a school’s rating from the state.

“We’ve always had a high population. I’ve always said Kissimmee is mini-Puerto Rico,” said Dalia Medina, director of the district’s Multicultural Education Department.

She says Puerto Ricans often send their children here because they already have family in Kissimmee. At the beginning of this school year more than a thousand new students from Puerto Rico enrolled –the most ever, she said.

“Every month of the school year they come in, every month, not just at the beginning. The number changes every, they could change every day. We have students enrolling at the end of the school year in May,” said Medina.

In so-called sheltered classes, bilingual teachers teach the class in English but can switch to Spanish one-on-one with a student if they need to. Another teaching method is Dual Language. These programs are for English and Spanish speakers whose parents want them to be completely bilingual. Half the academic classes are in English, half in Spanish.

As families continue to flee Puerto Rico’s poor economy, the district expects more students like Johanelys Soto. The 8th grader is already looking forward to high school and beyond. Asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” she doesn’t hesitate.

“To be a doctor. I like to help people and cure lives and everything,” said Soto.

Soto can no longer call herself the new student. Just this month– more English language learning students have enrolled at Neptune Middle School.

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About Crystal Chavez

Crystal Chavez