OPB News

Sealing the Cracks in the System

By Rob Manning

SALEM, OR 2005-05-26

(Oregon Considered) - All this week, OPB's Language of Learning series has been looking at Oregon's changing classrooms. Between 1994 and 2004, the number of students in Oregon schools who spoke languages other than English rose by almost 400% percent.
Earlier this week, we visited younger students. Yesterday, we heard about efforts to get teenagers from foreign countries up to speed in English. Today, Rob Manning brings us the last story in the "The Language of Learning" series with a look at what's being done to seal the cracks in an education system under stress.

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McKay High Vice Principal Susan Rieke-Smith has seen huge demographic changes firsthand over the last few years in Salem.

Susan Rieke-Smith: My eldest daughter was a '98 graduate of McKay, and they did not have the ESL pressures at that point in time as we do now.

Close to one-third of McKay's 1,800 students need help with English. That number is only expected to grow in the years to come. The rapid rise puts pressure on school districts, on teachers, and on the students themselves.

Students who struggle with English are some of the most likely to drop out. Portland's Latinos can continue their education someplace else.

Yvonne Mery: LISTOS started in 1996, it was originally housed in the basement of a Portland high school.

LISTOS is run through the Oregon Council for Hispanic Advancement. It literally means ready in Spanish. Yvonne Mery is the director.

Yvonne Mery: I believe it was a group of Latino educators, and they said you know, I think we can do more for these students,' so they started a homework club in the basement of one of these schools, after school.

LISTOS now teaches English to roughly 70 Latino students at a time, most are in their late teens or early 20s. The strategies are similar to what high schools are doing with English learners.

Teachers try to keep students engaged, with videos and with games. In one class, students toss a nerf ball around. When a student catches it, he has to answer a question.

The program has its advantages. Erin McCarthy says it helps that the students speak the same native language.

Erin McCarthy: I already know what questions - well, I can conceptualize what questions they have before hand, so there's an absolute benefit for these students being in the same class coming here.

But there's not room for everyone. LISTOS points younger students toward high school. English assistance programs at Portland's David Douglas High are considered among the best.

But 18 year-old Annabel says the big classes at David Douglas made it hard for her to learn. And she says because LISTOS lets out at one-thirty, she gets more time with her infant son.

Annabel: When your parents are paying the rent, or the bills, it's better if you go to high school. But you only have lunchtime to see your baby. Here, if you want to be independent, you have time to go home to see the baby and still go to work.

LISTOS focuses on English conversation, rather than academics, like high school. But it was rigorous enough to help 19 year-old Pablo, get to community college. He's hoping that will lead to a job in business.

Pablo: Actually, I have done a lot of interviews to different people about how they started with their English, and how they're working in different fields.

Learning English and getting a GED are just a start. Because their families are undocumented, Pablo and Annabel have reason to ask that their last names not be used. Their status makes them ineligible for in-state college tuition, or federal loans, making access to college a lot tougher.

Schools have other concerns: like the federal No Child Left Behind Act, or NCLB for short. Studies show that students take five to seven years to understand academic-level English.

But NCLB requires students take the same tests as their mainstream counterparts within one or two years. David Douglas principal Randy Hutchinson says it's asking a lot.

Randy Hutchinson: Your parents move you to China and you're expected to pass in two years a test in Mandarin Chinese. And at a level that's pretty significant. Would that be challenging for you?

Hutchinson agrees with advocates who say student growth, rather than pass-fail, is the best way to judge schools. As it stands, though, if too few English learners pass the 10th grade test, the high school fails.

Schools getting federal money can face sanctions as a result, like having to pay for kids to be bused to other schools. David Douglas does not get money from DC, but missing benchmarks has brought bad publicity.

McKay High in Salem just started accepting federal dollars, despite the potential fallout.

Susan Rieke-Smith: It's that carrot and stick (laughs).

This year, McKay's Susan Rieke-Smith has to double the number of ELL students who met the standards last year to escape sanctions. But she says hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grants will help.

Susan Rieke-Smith: Education, like any human resource-driven work, requires a tremendous amount of people, that requires a very high salary rate.

Administrators around Oregon say that putting qualified teachers in front of English learners is vital. Christine Welch just started teaching so-called sheltered math at McKay, after decades in a regular classroom. She says it's more work.

Christine Welch: I couldn't even estimate how much more time it takes. And the class itself is exhausting because there's so many needs all at one time. That's true in any classroom, but particularly that one. At the end of a class period, you're exhausted.

Welch is something of an exception. For years, schools have steered students who speak other languages toward inexperienced teachers. David Douglas teacher Michaela Vandeperren says she still sees that.

Michaela Vandeperren: I think some of the other schools fall into some of the negative stereotypes of oh, God, another one, well, send them to Mrs. So-and-so for the day ' .

Stan Vargas: If they can teach ESL and not have to do more, that's what they'll do.

Stan Vargas teaches biology to English learners at McKay High. He says experienced teachers may resist the assignment.

Stan Vargas: But that doesn't make them lazy. If you're a supervisor at a Chrysler car manufacturing plant - you don't want to have to go back and learn to work a laser. So, it's not the teacher's fault that he doesn't want to go back and do that, but that's what has to be done.

Vargas says incentives like higher pay or extra planning time might get his colleagues' interest. The state funding formula gives school districts more money for students who need help learning English.

But if you account for district overhead and administration costs, Vargas says it's not enough.

Stan Vargas: The regular teacher or administrator says ESL needs to be paid for out of ESL funds.' So if I go to one department chair and say I need some money for biology' - fine.' If I need some money for ESL biology - no, get ESL to pay for it. And ESL has already been cut, ESL is already minimal, and we're right back to an ESL student is getting less spent on him than a regular student.

Whether they're called, ELL or ESL students--teachers often use the words interchangeably--the population is only expected to grow. And the field is getting more popular among graduate students.

In a tough job market, substitute Linda Johnson sees a Portland State ESL endorsement as her ticket to a full-time position. Johnson says she's seen the need already.

Linda Johnson: It was like, downright scary. I subbed one time in a science class over at Franklin High School and all the students were Asian and there was no English at all. And their regular teacher was fluent in Vietnamese. Fortunately, after a while, an assistant showed up, and he helped me out the rest of the day.

It's hard to imagine school districts hiring enough aides - like the one that rescued Linda Johnson - to cover all 138 languages in Oregon schools. And schools are seeing some reluctance among teachers to incorporate sheltered instruction.

Sheltered math teacher, Christine Welch says they're missing out.

Christine Welch: I remember one fellow - it was actually his last year of teaching before he retired and he had an ELL class, his first one. And he said this is like some well-kept secret;' he really enjoyed working with those kids.

Over time, teachers expect the videos, games and personal connections common in sheltered instruction will become more familiar. In part, that's because demographers expect more students from south of the border and overseas in Oregon classrooms. But it's also because teachers contend what works for English learners will work well for all kids.

"The Language of Learning" series site

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