Summary: Portland Public Schools has to show that its English as a Second Language classes better serve the rising numbers with limited English

Portland Public Schools — plagued for years with complaints that students with limited English get poor language training — has until July 15 to convince the federal government that its English as a Second Language program deserves a passing grade.

A team of administrators is moving quickly to try to satisfy a list of demands from the U.S. Department of Education. Investigators from the Office for Civil Rights have been after the district to bolster language programs for immigrants since 1994.

That’s when Latino parents formally asked the federal government to investigate Portland’s ESL program. They alleged that hundreds of students who needed language training were left dangling without adequate help.
Parents also said the district failed to properly address disproportionate dropout rates among Latinos.

Over the years, the district has complied with stages of the investigation,
and administrators are confident that the latest plan will conclude the federal supervision.

Since 1990, the number of limited-English students in Portland Public Schools has more than doubled to 5,200. Across Oregon, the growth is more dramatic: 44,000 students with limited or no English in 2000, up from 5,500 in 1988.

Jaime Zapata of the National Association for Bilingual Education says Portland’s challenges are not unique.

“The education of these students is so misunderstood, or it’s an afterthought,” he said. “Now that limited-English kids are not just in Los Angeles or New York, understandably, a lot of school districts are scrambling to educate these children.”

In Portland, a majority of limited-English students are taught in ESL programs, which teach reading and writing in English with limited emphasis on their native languages. Portland also has bilingual and immersion programs that teach students in their native languages.

Portland hired a consultant this year to evaluate its ESL program.
Administrators promise parents that students will be moved from ESL to mainstream classes only when they acquire proficient English. The district also aims to recruit more bilingual teachers on an increasingly competitive hiring circuit.

Perhaps the biggest target of the federal oversight is equity, said Teresa Rosalez, Portland’s ESL director. Historically, ESL programs have been taught only at certain schools — forcing many students either to stay in schools without ESL instruction or to travel to another school — but now programs are sprouting in neighborhood schools throughout the district.

“You don’t separate them,” Rosalez said. “You provide equal opportunities.”

Students and teachers say the quality of ESL varies from school to school,
teacher to teacher.

Some describe ESL classes as simplistic; others stay in classes for several years without perfecting their English. Many others benefit from creative teachers, form strong bonds with English-speaking students and move on to community colleges or four-year universities.

By law, school districts must offer equal education to students who speak limited or no English. In 1974, a lawsuit filed by Chinese parents in San Francisco spawned a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that districts must take
“affirmative steps” to teach such students.

Growing up in Ghana in West Africa, 20-year-old Michael Annoh spoke three native languages and some English. He moved to Oregon in 1996 to live with his father and enrolled in Grant High School.

“I could have conversations, but I kind of struggled a little bit,” Annoh said of his transition to American schools. In Grant’s ESL program, he read eighth-grade-level books and supplemented his schoolwork with reading at home. Annoh graduated in 2000 and works at OHSU Hospital transporting patients. He also attends Mt. Hood Community College.

Jose Bravo, 17, described a different experience in ESL. Bravo was born in Tijuana, Mexico, and moved to the Portland area in 1996. He attended suburban schools before settling at Madison High, but left this year feeling unchallenged in the ESL program.

“I was going to school for such a long time to learn a little,” Bravo said through a translator. He now takes reading and writing classes at Portland Community College four times a week to finish his high school credits and eventually enroll in college courses.

Chris Hager, Annoh’s former ESL teacher at Grant, says educators must make ESL classes relevant for immigrant students if they expect to retain students.

“I just want them to feel comfortable in any situation, to walk in, apply for a job,” Hager said. Schools must “get the kids to feel at home in this country as quickly and harmlessly as they can.” You can reach Clifton R.
Chestnut at 503-294-7669 or by e-mail at

Comments are closed.