Idea of Two-Way Bilingual School Gains Fans in Milwaukie

The proposal's backers say it would help Spanish-speaking students, but the district faces a tight budget

MILWAUKIE—Veteran elementary principal Dave Wells has watched students arrive from another country only to sit quietly in class struggling to learn English.

Faced with complex lessons and the demands of learning a new language, some students’ excitement about school tends to fade, he said.

“We put them in these rooms and say, ‘Sink or swim,’ ” said Wells, principal of Campbell Elementary School in Milwaukie. “We don’t say that, but that’s what it amounts to.” Wells and a group of North Clackamas School District parents and administrators are proposing a bilingual school that would open in the fall. Half of the day would be taught in Spanish and the rest in English, a model called two-way bilingual education.

North Clackamas, like many Oregon school districts experiencing an increase in native Spanish-speaking students, uses a mixture of methods to teach English. It offers English-as-a-second-language instruction, which is essentially English immersion, and relies on Spanish-speaking teaching assistants who are not certified teachers.

Wells points to low achievement rates among nonnative English-speaking students as evidence that the district needs to try another approach.

“We are failing with this group of kids, and we have got to do better,” he said.

At first, the bilingual school would serve kindergarten, first and second grades, with a grade level added each year until the school reaches sixth grade. Enrollment would be divided between native English speakers and native Spanish speakers, who make up roughly 4 percent of the district’s enrollment.

Superintendent Ron Naso said he supports the idea but is concerned about finding space for the program as well as paying for it when the district expects to cut teaching positions. He said he asked the group this week to work out program details before he considers it.

Organizers have not prepared a budget but would plan to open with three teachers and 75 students. They are eyeing a possible site at the future Alder Creek Middle School, now home to Clackamas High. The school will have an eight-classroom wing available beginning in the fall.

Many educators consider two-way immersion programs to be an effective approach to teaching students whose native language is not English. These programs help develop students’ fluency in their native language, which some researchers say is an essential building block for learning a second language.

Oregon City offers a magnet bilingual program at Candy Lane and Jennings Lodge elementary schools. Native Spanish speakers in the program post stronger achievement scores on state tests than those in the district’s English-as-a-second-language program, said Candy Lane Principal Roberta Stennick.

A group of parents whose children attend a Spanish language preschool that opened last year are behind the proposal. Amiguitos Preschool in Milwaukie has 22 students and is run by Ayde Manzano de York, a member of the committee that is exploring options for a bilingual school.

Parents say Amiguitos, which includes a kindergarten, has laid a foundation in Spanish for their children that they want to continue into elementary school.

Matt Utterback said his 3-year-old daughter Emma talks to her dolls in Spanish. She knows colors and can count in Spanish, too.

“It has been beyond our wildest dreams,” said Utterback, principal of McLoughlin Middle School in Milwaukie. “She’s been there four months now. It’s truly amazing.”

Donna and Carlos Estrada speak Spanish with their 5-year-old son Ruben at home, but they worry he may lose his father’s native language as he moves into elementary school.

Donna Estrada said Amiguitos has given her son additional exposure to Spanish, which helps him communicate with family members living in Mexico.

“It really saddens us that there might come a day when he would not be able to talk to them,” she said.

You can reach Noelle Crombie at 503-294-5927 or by e-mail at

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