More than 6,000 students in Collier County Public Schools don't speak English as their first language. That's 14 percent of the total 43,000 students in the district.
That lofty number places Collier schools fourth from the top of all of Florida's 67 counties with the highest number of English language learners, according to 2010-11 state data.
The conclusion could be that Collier schools is achieving well academically, considering the high population of ELL students.
That's what Collier Superintendent Kamela Patton has said before: "We're sitting here with the fourth-largest number of (English language learners) kids of counties in the state," she said. "Really, we're doing quite well that we're almost at the state's average."
Collier is three percentage points behind the state when looking at the number of third-grade students who passed the state reading assessment this year.
In comparison to other counties with a similar percentage of ELL students, such as Martin County on Florida's east coast, the district has a far way to go to improving test scores.
To put it in perspective, Miami-Dade County Public Schools tops the list with ELL students making up 18.9 percent of its student population. Compared to Collier, about 5 percent more of Miami-Dade school's population are ELL students. Miami-Dade has the same percent of third-graders passing the state reading exam as Collier.
"It's so hard for us to look at Dade because they're seven times the size of us," Patton said. "What I'm trying to get at is who is almost our same size with the same kind of kids."
Martin County doesn't fit that profile perfectly — it has 2,300 ELL students, 4,000 less than Collier. But it does fall right below Collier Schools, at No. 5 on the list, with ELL students making up more than 13 percent of its population.
Martin County also has 13 percent more students passing the third-grade FCAT than Miami-Dade and Collier Schools.
Collier and Martin administrators say there's no clear-cut answer as to why one district's scores are better than the others. Both say it isn't fair to make a district-to-district comparison — the size of the student populations is different, the size of the counties is different, and the type of ELL student is different.
Shela Khanal, Martin County schools director of Title 1 (high-poverty), said engaging parents effectively improved student scores.
Unlike Collier, Martin schools has little to no migrant population, but it has almost the same percentage of students who enter the school system speaking a language other than English.
Khanal and others developed parent resource centers in two areas of the district that have a high population of ELL students. The centers provide bilingual resources, learning opportunities for parents, interaction with certified bilingual teachers, and more.
"If parents are reading and talking with children in their native language, they're still developing core literacy skills and a foundation," Khanal said. "No matter what language you speak and write in, you need to be able to think."
Patton has talked about engaging parents, encouraging them to read in Spanish or Creole to their children.
"The kids that bring our diversity in, they generally don't have the parent involvement," Patton said. "That's endemic of whether you're in Miami or not."
Patton said her point is there are many counties who don't face challenges with ELL students and yet Collier students still outperform them. An example is Escambia County near Pensacola that has less than 1 percent ELL students with 51 percent of all students passing the third-grade state reading exam.
"We don't have this problem solved in any way or form," Patton said. "But our point is that we have kids that just sit in the classroom, they don't know what the (teacher) is saying."
To give teachers and administrators a better understanding of how non-English speaking students feel in a classroom, Patton organized a leadership institute held last week. As the opening exercise, Patton asked district director Irene Benfatti to teach a lesson in Russian to the audience.
"In the United States, we don't have a sense of world languages," Benfatti said. "Our teachers and administrators don't know what it's like to be in an environment or situation where they have no clue."
Benfatti spoke only in Russian for the first part of the lesson. Then she introduced vocabulary in Russian and English.
"The audience of 350 looked like deer in headlights," Benfatti said.
Finally, she paired the vocabulary with illustrations.
That's when the light bulbs started going off, she said.
Benfatti can relate to the ELL students first hand. She was born in Venezuela to Russian parents. When she moved to the United States, she spoke Spanish and Russian — no English.
"It's an incredible feeling of isolation," she said of not speaking the language in school. "You either sank or you swam."
Benfatti had the support of her parents, unlike many students in the Collier school district today, but she still faced challenges.
"Part of the problem is too, when you don't speak the language, people think you're not smart," she said.
Benfatti said Patton has an understanding of those challenges and being No. 4 in the state for ELL students shouldn't mean students can't outperform their peers in other districts.
Patton said what she's trying to do is create a sense of urgency.
"We have a bigger challenge than many other places," she said.