Latinos, Learning and Language

School's start previews hurdles a student will face

“I don’t want to go. I’m afraid. Just that I will be alone. And that I won’t understand.” — JORGE GUZMAN CASTRO

When the alarm went off at 6 a.m. Tuesday, Jorge Guzman Castro had been awake long enough to imagine social ruin. Head buried beneath a pillow, he’d seen the quiz he couldn’t read. The students turning when a teacher called on him. The moment everyone learned that he spoke very little English. He willed the digits on his clock’s display panel to stop, but they hurried on, blasting him with Pink at 6 sharp. An hour later, he sat beneath a painting of the Virgin de Guadalupe in his living room, as ready as he would be. “I don’t want to go,” he said in Spanish. “I’m afraid. Just that I will be alone. And that I won’t understand.”

Jorge is one of 62,400 Latino students enrolled in Oregon schools, more than double the number a decade ago. At 11 percent, Latinos are by far the largest and fastest-growing minority group in Oregon schools. For every Asian student, there are three Latinos, for every African American student, four Latinos.

At 16, Jorge is also in the middle of a national debate about how to educate non-English speaking students. Oregon schools spend about $63 million a year on 51,600 English as a Second Language students, most of whom speak Spanish as a native language.

Traditionally in America, students simply have been dropped into classrooms and expected to catch up. Now, some education experts push special programs that incorporate a student’s native language.

Jorge struggles with English and the fear of embarrassment, but he hides it well. His saunter is casual as he makes his way out of the home he shares with extended family in a cul-de-sac to Wilsonville Road, where he catches a city bus to school.

From his off-kilter baseball cap to his Adidas, he’s dressed to meld with the 870 other students streaming through the school’s wide brick entryway.

But in a school where 89 percent of students are white non-Latinos and only 6 percent of students are Latino, that’s not easy.

In second period, Michael Groves promises to butcher people’s names and proceeds to do so.

“Gorgy Goose-man?” the English teacher calls.

Jorge lifts a hand and says his name the right way: Hor-heh. Groves walks briskly around the classroom, flying from one thought to the next. He’s a teaching dynamo, and the students are riveted.

He tells them to grab scratch paper, write down two questions about the class, one question about him and one suggestion. Jorge understands nothing and writes nothing.

Later, during introductions, Groves asks Jorge when he came from Mexico. Jorge blinks nervously. He doesn’t understand, so another student translates.

Jorge may have struggled the first day, but he will get close attention. And staffers will change his program to meet his needs, said Assistant Superintendent Jane Stickney.

Along with schools all across Oregon and Southwest Washington, the West Linn-Wilsonville School District is rushing to catch up with a dramatic growth in non-English speaking students. Five years ago, the district had only 25 ESL students. Now nearly 200 are in the district, she said.

“Matt will help work out links and supports for him,” Stickney said, referring to Matt Courtney, the district’s ESL teacher. “We give kids very personalized treatment, and Jorge will undoubtedly get the help.”

“He looked so lost”

Jorge says he’s learned a great deal since he first came to school last year as a freshman.

“He looked so lost. His eyes were huge,” said Courtney. Last year, he did all sorts of patchwork to make sure that Jorge got a solid C average. That sometimes meant translating Jorge’s assignments to him in Spanish, then translating the homework Jorge did back into English for teachers.

Parental involvement is crucial, said Courtney, who plans to hold a special Back-to-School Night for Spanish-speaking students.

Despite the best efforts of the staff to immerse Jorge into the school’s English-speaking culture, at his first opportunity, he seeks out the few students who speak Spanish.

Out in the hall, Jorge wades through a pack of thick-soled, glitter-faced girls toward familiar faces. Jurio Camacho, Moses Martinez and Victor Diaz are boys like him, boys who like banda music as well as Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube. Boys who carry binders with inscriptions such as “Puro Brown Pride” and pictures of low riders.

With them, he is no longer the shy, blinking boy who doesn’t understand. His posture goes loose, he laughs, jokes and exchanges slaps on the back.

“I can’t be me, here, not completely,” he said. “People can’t know me completely until I speak English. When you understand everything you’re more confident. But I’m going to keep trying.”

A need for planning

Merced Flores, an associate superintendent at the Oregon Board of Education, said much more has to be done. Many districts still don’t have ESL coordinators. Other districts do not use all the money they have for ESL services. Many, he said, don’t understand how to use it.

They can use it for teacher classes, he said, and to offer incentives to get more bilingual teachers. If districts don’t make solid, comprehensive plans for their English-learning students, it will hurt everyone in Oregon later on.

Gail Merrion, ESL coordinator for the Hillsboro schools, said her district has helped students more effectively by drawing more parents into student education. Each student has to read at a third-grade level in their own language before trying to read at that level in English. Classes such as science are taught concurrently with English.

Other states use a variety of approaches, but two states, Arizona and California, have banned bilingual education through measures on the ballot.

A grandfather’s dream

Two years ago, Jorge’s grandfather turned to him in a cornfield and told him something he thinks about when he’s scared.

“You’re a brave boy,” Aurelio Castro de la Cruz said, his hands moving steadily through the stalks on land in La Laguna, an agricultural village in the Mexican state of Guerrero. “Your family works the fields, but for you the ground is a place to start. I know you will make me proud.”

That’s what Jorge says he wants to do, more than anything. That’s why on Tuesday he forced himself through math, English, study skills, history, science and ESL.

Jorge at times has wanted to stop studying and take a job alongside his parents.

“He’d come home, half mad,” said Proses Guzman Gonzalez, sitting in his living room and still dusty from the day’s work. His father met his son’s distress with compassion but firm words.

“We are here to work, and he is here to study,” he said. “It was hard to come here; we all worked very hard for the money. Now it’s up to him to make use of opportunity.”

Staff writer Steve Carter contributed to this report. Kate Taylor: 503-294-5116;

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