Original URL:  http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/local/southflorida/sfl-cwestonmar12,0,711072.story?coll=sfla-news-front

Weston's high-flying Hispanic students buck national trend
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
March 12 2004
By Sandra Hernandez Staff Writer

With his mop of dark brown hair, baggy sweats and de rigueur cell phone, Diran Devletian easily blends into the sea of students that feverishly moves through the hallways of Cypress Bay High School.

But Devletian is hardly average.

Since moving from Venezuela to South Florida in 2001, the lanky 17-year-old is among the school's top students. He carries a full load of honors classes while playing on two soccer teams

"Academically, it has been a breeze," said Devletian, holding a history exam with a big red A on the top left corner.

Devletian's story isn't uncommon in Weston. Here, amid the new housing developments and golf courses, an unusual picture of Hispanic immigrant students is emerging. They join the ranks of the school's academic elite at a time when national dropout rates for Hispanics are reaching alarming levels. Their success has some singing the praises of bilingual education, which many received in their home countries.

"I would say these students generally do very well," said Priscilla Ribeiro, Cypress Bay's assistant principal. "One reason we scored so well in math in the county was because of these students."

About 39 percent of Cypress Bay's 4,300 students are Hispanic. While schools do not track students' immigration status, Cypress Bay officials say more than 1,000 of its students have limited English proficiency and are likely immigrants.

Those figures are similar at Weston's eight other schools, where Hispanic enrollment tops 30 percent and nearly all the schools scored an A rating, according to the district's 2002-2003 School Accountability report. At Cypress Bay, where Spanish and English are often used interchangeably in the hallways, immigrant students are breaking old notions that question their ability to succeed academically. The school has one of the highest Hispanic enrollment rates in Broward County. Students there also have high scores on the math portion of the FCAT.

Other high schools with similar Hispanic enrollment rates received average grades. At McArthur High School in Hollywood and Charles W. Flanagan High School in Pembroke Pines, Hispanic enrollment tops 36 percent and both schools received a C grade.

One explanation for the lower scores could be economics. More than 50 percent of students at Flanagan and McArthur participate in the free or reduced lunch program, and many of Weston's students are affluent and middle class immigrants.While some students at Cypress Bay still require English for students of other languages, or ESOL, the majority takes advanced course work.

That success is in stark contrast to the national outlook for Hispanic students. More than 20 percent of all Hispanics fail to graduate from high school, and among immigrant Hispanics that rate tops 30 percent, according to a 2003 Pew Hispanic Center study of 16- to 19-year-olds.

In Broward and Miami-Dade counties, only 12 percent of dropouts in that age group were Hispanic.

One reason Weston students are bucking national trends is they attended pricey private schools in their home countries, where dual language was considered desirable and foreign teachers were hired. Weston experienced an influx of families from Venezuela and Colombia, where political and economic instability is blamed for mass emigration.

"In Venezuela (the kids) took half their classes in Spanish and the other half in English," says Devletian's mother, Maria Teresa. "Thanks to that [schooling] he's doing very well."Veronica Diaz enrolled her children in Weston schools just a few weeks after the family moved from Colombia. "Because of [the bilingual school] my daughter and son have done well here," Diaz said.Her daughter gets high marks. Her son requires some help with English but is also getting A's and B's.

But if bilingual education is credited with helping these students succeed in South Florida schools, its value is still being debated in the United States.

Currently, Florida provides ESOL classes for students who aren't fluent in English. Students are taught in English but receive additional help.In bilingual, or dual language, programs, students take some courses in English and others in a foreign language. But this program is available at only a handful of Miami-Dade, Broward or Palm Beach County schools.

Opponents of bilingual education insist it fails to help children become English-proficient, a hurdle to academic success. They insist dual language doesn't offer relief to those who need it most, such as poor immigrants who have limited schooling.

Others insist that it is impossible for schools to offer bilingual education because more than 50 languages are sometimes spoken at a single school.

Supporters, however, point to cases like those of Weston's immigrant students. "These kids challenge the notion that bilingual education doesn't work because it proves that if implemented properly, kids learn both languages," says Delia Pompa, of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Bilingual Education, a group that represents more than 12,000 bilingual educators. "It isn't unusual for children who are schooled in two languages for eight or nine years to be successful in both languages."

She says the failure of bilingual education in many U.S. cities has more to do with economics and its implementation rather than its ability to help kids learn. Voters in states with large Latino populations, such as California and Arizona, opted to end bilingual education in favor of quicker transitional programs for immigrant students.

"Many of these students have only three years and that isn't enough to become proficient," she said.Pompa says cases like those of Weston may help bolster interest in bilingual education and make communities more comfortable with bilingual education.

"I think these kids challenge the idea of immigrants being uniformly unqualified," says Weston City Commissioner Barbara Herrera-Hill.

Sandra Hernandez can be reached at shernandez@sun-sentinel.com or 954-385-7923.