FORT WALTON BEACH — On any given day, more than 700 students in Okaloosa County schools might not understand what they hear.
Some struggle to translate every word. Others miss only a word here and there. All of them are part of a growing population of English Language Learners (ELL) in the district.
In the last year alone, the number of students whose native language is not English enrolled in Okaloosa schools has increased by about 65.
While the number might not sound like a lot, combine it with the 36 languages they speak and the limited resources for educators, and the district faces a daunting task.
Learning the language
When Bilol Ibrohimov moved to the United States with his family in 2010 from Uzbekistan, he was fluent in Uzbek and Russian, but not English.
“I didn’t understand nothing,” the 15-year-old Fort Walton Beach High School student said. “It was, ‘Hi, how are you?’ That’s it.”
In the two years since, Bilol has reached the point that he understands his teachers and classmates most of the time. He’s given up carrying a translation dictionary and even helps newer students learn the language.
“English is easy to learn,” Bilol said with a smile. “But the accent is a little bit hard.”
The high school sophomore said his father moved the family to the United States so each of the children could become fluent in English before returning to their home in central Asia to find well-paying jobs.
Bilol’s story isn’t unique. Many students enrolled in Okaloosa County schools are here for similar reasons, according to Paola Diaz de Varela, who is the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) translator at Fort Walton Beach High School.
Some families come for job opportunities, a few for family and many because of the low cost of living compared to larger southern cities with similar climates.
But nearly all of them arrive at the schools feeling one thing: fear.
Dealing with change
The day Michelle Ramswell started classes at Fort Walton Beach, she could speak English, but her accent was impossible to hide.
“I felt I would throw up,” the 17-year-old recalled with laugh.
She was worried that American students would pick on her the same way she’d seen classmates in Germany pester foreign students. Fortunately, her worries were for naught.
“Everyone was so nice,” she said.
Today, she’s friends with American students and students enrolled alongside her in the school’s class for ELLs.
They don’t always understand each other, but the language barrier isn’t nearly as wide anymore. It’s also easier these days to admit what they don’t understand and laugh over it.
Diaz de Varela said that’s exactly why she and Kellen Francis, the teacher who oversees a class at the end of the day for ELLs, tend to focus initially on helping students learn words to help them socialize with their American peers.
“They feel so isolated and scared because they don’t speak the language,” said Diaz de Varela, whose native language is Spanish. “I provide them shelter as they go through assimilation.”
That usually takes about six weeks, she said.
During that time, the students attend nearly all their classes alongside their American peers. Teachers make an effort to work with them, but sometimes that’s not enough.
That’s where Francis and Diaz de Varela step in.
A typical day
On any given day between 1 and 2 p.m., English Language Learners at Fort Walton Beach go between Diaz de Varela’s room and Francis’ room.
The tasks they accomplish are as varied as the cultures they come from. The goal is not only to help the students expand their English, but to help them through assignments and homework from their other classes.
“They’re just exhausted when they get here —mentally,” Francis said. “In their other classes they’re getting just the same material as native speakers … It’s very, very difficult.”
More often than not, Francis said she tries to make learning English fun.
Less advanced students tend to spend time with pictures and pieces of paper with corresponding words on them that they have to match up if they don’t have homework.
More advanced students test their wings differently. On a recent Thursday, a group of six girls spent the class writing six different stories together. Each would write a sentence on a paper and then pass it on.
When one struggled with a word, Francis or one of the other students stepped in to help.
Once finished, they took turns reading the stories aloud amid laughter.
“It’s a safe environment where they know they can say something whether or not they say it correctly,” Francis said.
In Diaz de Varela’s classroom, students can work on computers using language learning programs such as Rosetta Stone and other electronic resources.
She isn’t fluent in all the languages her students speak, but she makes an effort to learn at least a few words in each to assist them as much as she can.
“I wish I could go to (all their) classes and help them out,” she said with smile.
Future of the program
As new demands come down from state education officials and the population of ELLs grows in Okaloosa County, the district is fine-tuning efforts to help students become proficient in English.
Right now, officials are finalizing a new ESOL district plan and website. They still are seeking input from parents and the public about it before they finalize it.
District officials also are building up a parent leadership council specifically for ESOL classes. They hope to have more activities to support the ELL students and their families soon.
Even as those steps are taken, population growth in schools hasn’t let educators slow down and wait for the details to get worked out.
For example, Fort Walton Beach had 28 students last year who were identified as ELL. This year it has 40, according to Assistant Principal Joe Peterson.
Of those 40 students, only 12 did not know any English when they arrived, he said. They did, however, speak five languages.
With that in mind, the school is working with the district to try to hire someone part-time to give the students even more one-on-one help.
But until the plans are finalized, teachers like Francis and Diaz de Varela will continue working with students, offering encouragement, help with homework and the opportunity to improve their English.
“They’re an amazing group,” Francis said of her class. “They’re just so ambitious and motivated.”
Contact Daily News Staff Writer Katie Tammen at 850-315-4440 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @KatieTnwfdn.