MANATEE -- The IMG Academy in Bradenton, usually touted for its students' athletic performances, also draws international attention for its diverse student body.
IMG Academy has about 800 full-time students representing 85 countries, with an international student population of about 65 percent.
Carol Binder, the academic coordinator of English programs, notes that some IMG students can speak three or more languages.
"Students here gain a global perspective," Binder said.
IMG is sometimes referred to as a high school with a university setting. Boarding schools are not as common in Florida as they are in Europe, and that could account for why IMG tends to get a heavier population of international students.
"For most countries, studying in high school away from home is just a way of life," said John Esfeller IV, the public relations coordinator at IMG. "You go learn another language and grow up in another country."
One way IMG helps international students is through partners and friends of the academy overseas in several countries. While these partners do not officially work for IMG, they refer families seeking sports training and education for their children to IMG and check in on their progress. Many international students call these partners their mentors.
One of IMG's many international students, Ayaka Suzuki, moved from Japan in 2010 to attend IMG Academy.
When she first moved to Bradenton, Suzuki had nine years of golfing experience, but could not speak much English. With her entire family still living in Japan, Suzuki says she was made more confident in her school experience with her mentor Sato Nakjima, a friend of IMG Academy for several years who makes sure international students from Japan are having a positive experience.
Suzuki's family saw a television commercial for IMG Academy in Japan, and her father told her that is where she was going to go for school.
"He told me it was an opportunity to learn English, learn another culture, and improve my golfing," Suzuki said. "He told me that is where I had to go."
During her time at IMG, Suzuki has added words to her vocabulary in Chinese and Korean as well by meeting new friends from different backgrounds.
Speaking has helped me the most, and working with my coach," Suzuki said. "Sometimes we argue, but we are like family. I can be negative and I will use the words 'I can't,' and he told me to never say those words."
Emanuela Re Cecconi of Italy, a summer camper at IMG for two years now, is submitting her application to attend this coming school year as an opportunity to improve her English.
Re Cecconi is nervous about the distance, but like Suzuki, Re Cecconi is connected with a friend of IMG who mentors international students.
Re Cecconi was also was guided by her parents, primarily her father, to come to IMG.
An avid basketball player, Re Cecconi learned from her father, and when she expressed interest in becoming more seriously involved in different sports, Re Cecconi said her father said no.
Still, Re Cecconi says she is looking forward to studying and playing basketball in the United States.
"Here I have the opportunity to play at the high school and maybe college level," Re Cecconi said. "I would not have that opportunity in Italy."
Testing their skills
Full-time students at IMG are given a test to see if their English skills are strong enough to succeed in school. Binder said this takes place in either an interview format or a written test, based on the student's preference.
Depending on their skills, international and English as a second language students are placed in either intensive English, mixed classes or are mainstreamed. IMG also offers resources for international students' parents who have relocated to Bradenton.
"We have intensive English programs that adults in the community can come to and we also have a more casual and conversational drop-in program," Binder said.
Teaching international students English can be challenging if they lack literacy skills in their own languages.
"Our goal is to get our English students to the point of conversing and interviewing comfortably. We want them to be prepared for college interviews and for the limelight," Binder said.
Athletic coaches also play a role in helping international students learn English swiftly, introducing vocabulary in class naturally while coaching students.
"They start with basic words in sports, which turns into sentences, which turns into perfecting grammar," Binder said.
ESL students benefit all
While IMG's primary focus concerning international students is providing foundations in English, Binder said other students benefit as a by-product.
"Having English as a second language speakers in class makes native speakers aware of other people's needs and the necessity of good communication," Binder said.
Students naturally become intrigued and ask speakers of other languages to teach them a few words. Teachers in the English learning classes can also take advantage of that.
"Teachers will give vocabulary words, and then ask students to share with the class what that word is in their own language," Binder said.
According to interviews that advisers at IMG conduct with alumni, 98 percent of IMG students go to college after IMG, most with the goal of playing for a specific college team.
Suzuki has been accepted into the University of San Francisco for this fall, and while she wants to continue to improve her golf swing, she is not interested in becoming a professional golfer. She wants to study business.
Students who don't consider college typically train as full-time students at IMG in the hopes of becoming professional athletes. That track, says Esfeller, tends to be more popular among international students.
Re Cecconi isn't sure if she wants to become a professional basketball player. But after the intensive sports training at IMG, she admits, it may be difficult to return to Italy for school.
"They look for everything to make you better here," Cecconi said.
Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.