Salem-Keizer Schools Scrambel for Spanish-Speaking Instructors

SALEM—In the face of protests from parents of Latino students, the district says it’s doing all it can to find teachers Latino parents and activists frustrated by the pace of change in Salem-Keizer schools say the state’s second-largest school district is not putting enough money into bilingual education to help the Latino students who make up 15 percent of the district’s enrollment.

The district, on the other hand, says it is scrambling to hire additional bilingual staff, revamp its bilingual program, provide diversity training to its 4,500 employees and meet other challenges of a rapidly changing school district.

Those assurances have not satisfied members of the Salem/Keizer Coalition for Equality, which is holding a rally at 4 p.m. Tuesday on the Capitol steps followed by a march on Salem-Keizer School District offices. The coalition, which has spent two years aggressively pushing the district to improve programs for Latinos and other minorities, plans to pressure the district’s budget committee to allocate more state funding for bilingual programs.

Activists say they are frustrated that the district spends millions of dollars it receives for bilingual students in unrelated programs while Latino students continue to have higher-than-average drop-out rates and lower-than-average achievement scores.

The state, based on a decade-old formula, gives schools 50 percent more money for each student who needs language help, but districts don’t necessarily spend it all on bilingual programs. Of the $8.4 million extra that Salem-Keizer schools will receive this year, the district will spend
$4.7 million directly on the bilingual program, according to the district’s fiscal department.

Most of the remaining $3.7 million will be spent on other programs that benefit all of the district’s 34,800 students, such as reading literacy,
according to Kay Baker, the district’s new superintendent.

Miguel Salinas, a retired teacher-principal who has been involved in education in Oregon since the 1950s, said changes to accommodate Latino students are slow in coming. “I can see the lack of change,” he said.

This is the first school year, for example, that Salem-Keizer has a bilingual/bicultural employee, David Bautista, to head its bilingual education program.

“We’re not where we want to be, but we’re moving,” said Baker. The district’s dropout rate and suspension rates among Latinos have declined in recent years although both remain higher than the district average for all students.

Last school year, for example, 13 percent of Latino students dropped out compared with 10 percent for the district as a whole. As recently as 1996-97, the dropout rate among Latino students was 22 percent.

Baker said the district’s main objective “is to get kids to speak and learn in English.” The best way to do that, she said, is to also teach youngsters to read in their native language while they phase into English.

Research shows that non-English-speaking children need five years of instruction in both their native language and in English to transition to English-only classes and catch up academically with their peers, Baker said.

In schools with the most Spanish-speaking students, the goal is for students to be taught in Spanish and English. At other schools, Spanish-speaking students are taught in English with help from bilingual aides and teachers who have received English as a second language training.

Advocates say the district has too few bilingual instructors to give youngsters the support they need. Most students end up in English as a second language classrooms with teachers who haven’t always received ESL training. In those cases, Baker said, the teacher might receive help from a bilingual aide or another teacher with ESL training.

Despite stepped-up recruiting efforts, 6 percent of the district’s teachers and administrators are minorities this school year in a district where 24 percent of the students are minorities. The employee figure has stayed at 6 percent for several years.

Baker agreed that the district desperately needs more bilingual and ESL teachers and “it’s our goal to find them.” In addition to recruiting nationally for bilingual instructors, the district is attempting to grow its own through an in-house program with colleges and is also sending other teachers back to school for English as a second language training.

The district is working with the Mexican Consulate and Chemeketa Community College to bring high school classes from Mexico to students via computer next year. That would enable older students to study more subjects, from science to social studies, in Spanish while learning English.

Still, the district has only five Spanish-speaking counselors for its 15 secondary schools. It hopes to boost the number by fall, but Human Resources Director Joe Weiss said counselors are harder to find than teachers, and bilingual counselors are tougher yet.

By September, every bilingual school in Salem will have at least one Spanish-speaking employee in the office, and each high school will have a half-time dropout counselor to entice teens back to school, Baker said.

Also, a community outreach coordinator has been hired to work with Latino parents of middle or high school students, matching a program that already exists in elementary schools.

Do you have news of Marion, Polk and southwestern Yamhill counties? You can reach Cheryl Martinis at 503-399-8540 or by e-mail at

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