WOODBURN ? Bilingual kids in Woodburn?s fifth-grade class are being watched closely this year.
This group will be the first to complete the district?s English Language Transition Program from kindergarten through fifth grade.
This spring the fifth-graders will take the annual state assessment tests,
and administrators are expecting good news.
Not only have the students learned English, but they?ve also kept up with or even surpassed the curriculum of their English-speaking peers, said Brenda Layton, executive director of instructional services for Woodburn schools.
?The brain actually functions at a higher level when you have a second language,? Layton said.
With one of the highest percentages of non-English speakers in Oregon (60 percent), the Woodburn School District decided to implement a bilingual program six years ago. Administrators say its success depends on its consistency.
At Woodburn?s five-year-old Heritage Elementary School, population growth has children spilling from the fairly new classrooms into modular portable buildings.
The fifth-graders scurry between the portables and the main building for bilingual and English-only classes.
In one building, a class of Russian speakers prepares to build a hypothetical bridge. They have a long list of supplies, parameters for building it and a limited budget.
They converse freely with the teacher in English, but occasional snippets of Russian can be heard as items are clarified to a student ? either by the teacher or fellow classmates.
In the back of the class, April LaCombe, a fourth-grade bilingual teacher who speaks Spanish, said many children have been in the class together since kindergarten.
Like any class, some are further along in their development than others. A few students raise their hands and ask questions in Russian to get answers in both languages.
LaCombe said that is encouraged, and children never are reprimanded for speaking in their native tongue.
?They?re figuring out in English what they already know in Russian,? LaCombe said.
The children help each other. Students more proficient in Russian than English support the others, and vice versa.
Non-English speakers who move to the district late in the five-year program receive extra English instruction and attention but never English immersion unless parents want it.
The day is divided into different emphases. Students mix time learning in their native language with time spent on science, social studies and math with other students.
?We don?t want to have a segregated culture,? LaCombe said. ?The best way to develop a language is to have peers as models.?
In another modular building, a Spanish-speaking class has twice as many students as its Russian counterpart. There?s not enough money to reduce class sizes, and the kids just keep coming, LaCombe said.
Students spend their time in fifth grade preparing for the all-English classes they?ll start taking next year in middle school.
Some look forward to it. They prefer to speak, read and write in English like everyone around them. Others recognize what they?ve accomplished and fear losing their native language.
Gustavo Vela-Moreno, 10, says he and his peers at Heritage are different than the sixth-grade class ahead of them.
?It?s different because we don?t lose our native language,? he said.
Gustavo looks forward to next year with some trepidation.
Most of his friends speak English, and sometimes he gets mad at himself when he forgets how to say a word in Spanish. He thinks it?s important to maintain his heritage.
?If you only know one language you can only help the people who speak Spanish,? he said. ?It helps the community.?
Rosie Chiernishoff, 10, agreed. Her mom brings her from Keizer specifically for the bilingual Russian classes offered at Heritage. But she finds herself speaking English more and more with her friends.
?It?s really easy to forget Russian,? she said.
When Woodburn looks at its state test scores this spring, administrator Sherrilynn Rawson hopes they will be viewed in terms of improvement, rather than comparisons to other districts.
Rawson, however, is certain the children completing fifth grade this year will improve those scores.
?Research bears out that those kids will not only outperform counterparts who don?t have ELD, but also outperform English-only students,? she said.
Tara McLain can be reached at (503) 399-6705.
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Late exit: In the first year of the six-year program, students receive instruction in math, science, language arts and social studies in their first language and additional daily instruction in English. Each year,
students receive more instruction in English. By the fifth year, students receive at least half the day?s instruction in English.
Early exit: Two- to three-year program with the same foundation as late exit but with a more rapid transition to English. Sometimes used in higher grade levels.
Sheltered English: Students receive most instruction in English but get extra instruction in English outside the normal classroom. Teachers also may use special techniques or focus on vocabulary.
English immersion: Students are placed in an English-only classroom with no special assistance. Immersion is sometimes coupled with English as a Second Language classes.
Dual-immersion or two-way: English and non-English speaking students receive half instruction in English and half in second language. The goal is for all students to speak two languages.
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“Schools struggle with non-English speakers”
Alex Davis, Oregon Statesman Journal, October 2, 2001
Clementina Salinas paints a dire future for Oregon?s public schools.
Test scores will fall. Dropout rates will rise.
Immigrant students, especially those learning English, will fall further and further behind their peers.
?It?s a sad state of affairs,? Salinas said from her superintendent?s office in the Clackamas County town of Sandy. ?There?s a lot of education that needs to happen.?
Two years ago, Salinas moved from Phoenix, Ariz., to the Oregon Trail School District.
About 6 percent of her new students have limited English skills, a low number compared to many places in the Southwest.
Nonetheless, Salinas is worried. She has only three teachers ? one for every 81 students ? with an English to Speakers of Other Languages credential, or ESOL.
There are similar disparities in school districts across the state.
In Gervais, there is one ESOL teacher for every 43 students; in Dallas, one for every 48; and in Hillsboro, one for every 73 students.
Tight budgets, teacher shortages and a politically charged debate about bilingual education have stymied progress while the population of English learning students has grown four-fold over the past decade.
Salem-Keizer registered 4,200 students in English learning programs this fall, a 6 percent jump since June.
The number statewide is more than 45,000, 8 percent of all public school students.
Eduardo Angulo, a Salem-based education activist, thinks the plight of those students will worsen if efforts to hire teachers and expand programs don?t keep up with growth. He also worries that a lack of resources will funnel non-English-speakers into menial jobs, and possibly crime and drugs.
?We can say with a fair amount of certainty that half of these kids will not graduate from high school,? Angulo said. ?It shouldn?t be acceptable to any community.?
There aren’t enough bilingual teachers to meet need
In 1999-2000, the dropout rate for Hispanic students in Salem-Keizer was 14.9 percent, 5 percentage points higher than the district average.
Hispanics make up the majority of the district?s English learners.
Salem-Keizer?s bilingual programs have been criticized in recent years, but statistical comparisons show the district is staying even ? or even ahead ?
of other school districts in its efforts to hire qualified teachers.
Its rate of 27 students for every ESOL teacher is second only to the Central School District in Polk County.
But David Bautista, Salem-Keizer?s director of bilingual education, said qualified staff aren?t keeping pace with growth despite double-digit budget increases for the past three years.
?It?s like going into surgery, and they tell you that the doctor is a first-
or second-year student,? Bautista said. ?That?s the injustice we?re doing.?
Teacher shortages aren?t limited to Oregon. Roughly 2.8 million elementary and secondary students in the United States were designated limited-English proficient in 2001, and only one in five of their teachers was certified to teach them, according to the federal Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs.
Bautista, who is from the Arizona border town of Nogales, spent much of last year assessing Salem-Keizer?s needs.
He said the district offered a language program to students at 15 schools in 2000-01, but gaps in staffing and curriculum meant only five schools offered what he calls a truly bilingual program.
Some students received kindergarten instruction in Spanish, then were dropped into an English-only class in first grade, only to return to a Spanish-English mix the next year, he said.
The problem was compounded by high mobility rates. In some Salem neighborhoods, more than a third of families move annually. Students who switch schools midyear were dropped into classes with different language strategies.
Improvements in bilingual education are slow
Bautista said there will be a more consistent effort this year. Twenty-two schools, including three of the district?s four new elementaries, will offer an English as a Second Language program, English immersion or a complete bilingual curriculum.
The district also is phasing out its strategy of busing students ? sometimes miles from their neighborhoods ? to centralized bilingual sites.
Lin Crimshaw, a 20-year veteran of Salem-Keizer?s bilingual programs, said less busing could result in more parental involvement, and a better ethnic balance in the district?s schools.
?What was once a ghettoized community is one where people will interact,?
she said. ?It comes slowly, but the potential is there.?
Crimshaw said visible improvements ? such as test score gains ? also will come slowly. The district has 10 new certified bilingual teachers, and 45 more taking Spanish reading and writing programs.
Another 65 are working toward their ESOL credentials this year, and Salem-Keizer has established a connection with bilingual experts in Guadalajara, Mexico, for training and recruiting.
Meanwhile, the population explosion continues. Nearly 65 percent of all students in Woodburn are learning English this year; the figure is 47 percent in Gervais.
The growth is fueled partly by families from places such as China, Vietnam,
Russia and Micronesia.
But the bulk of it, particularly in the Mid-Willamette Valley, is immigrants from rural, southern Mexico, from Michoacan and Oaxaca, places where students are far less likely to have access to college or high school.
Oregon Trail?s Salinas predicts that, if Oregon continues its present pace of hiring bilingual teachers, the state?s public schools will catch up to their students? needs in about 20 years.
No consensus on teaching non-English speakers
But not everyone agrees with the push for more bilingual teachers.
Sen. Charles Starr, R-Hillsboro, is one of a handful of vocal opponents of bilingual education.
?I think the bilingual approach is a tremendous waste of time and money,? he said. ?It forever cripples that student who doesn?t have adequate support from his home.?
Starr sponsored Oregon?s first anti-bilingual legislation last spring, but it didn?t get much support. Starr, the chairman of the seven-member Senate Education Committee, said few legislators supported his bill because they were afraid to upset the state?s powerful teacher unions.
Citing improved test scores, he said California and Arizona have benefited from similar bans on bilingual approaches.
But there is little consensus on the California and Arizona changes. Some argue that class sizes were reduced at the same time bilingual programs went away.
Abby Lane, a California native who coordinates language programs for Eugene Public Schools, said the issue in her home state wasn?t that the bilingual approach failed but that programs weren?t adequately funded.
Some of the most pronounced differences in Oregon are in Marion and Polk counties.
Gervais, for example, uses an English as a Second Language model. Students are immersed in English for most classes but get language support in special pullout or ?transition? classes.
Several miles away in Woodburn, this year?s fifth-graders will graduate into English-only classes after five years of study in Spanish or Russian.
Children in Independence use a third model, mixing native language classes with ?sheltered? classes for students not quite ready for the transition to the mainstream.
Other schools use teachers who still are studying for their bilingual credential, or who have an endorsement from California or other states but haven?t taken the Oregon tests.
State looks at changes for bilingual programs
At the Oregon Department of Education, Merced Flores said the differences between schools sometimes happen for practical reasons.
Flores, an associate state superintendent of student services, said some communities have vastly different populations and hence different needs.
Others use teachers? aides and parent volunteers.
Both Flores and Salinas said one of the state?s biggest problems is consistency, both between school districts and within them.
?When people tend to use only one method, you tend to become very focused on a strategy that may not help all kids,? Flores said. ?We really have to be flexible.?
Flores said improving teacher diversity, especially in bilingual programs,
is one of the top priorities for the Department of Education this year.
Flores said there are many immigrant teachers who come to Oregon every year,
but because of language barriers or a lack of knowledge of the system they often take lower-paying jobs in unrelated fields.
Funding also may change. Starting in September 2002, all Oregon school districts will be required to report to the state Department of Education and the Legislature on how their resources support bilingual or English as a Second Language programs.
Since 1991, all school districts have received an extra 50 cents for every dollar of school funds they receive for students with limited English skills.
Also, as the numbers continue to grow, some school districts are becoming more eligible for state and federal grants for bilingual programs.
Salem?s Angulo said many schools ? both locally and across the state ? are beginning to address their populations? needs. But he said he and other activists plan to continue the pressure to accelerate reforms.
?What we want is accountability at every school and with each principal,? he said. ?We?re going to raise our kids in this town (Salem), we?re going to raise academics and we?re going to lower the dropout rate. We want them to go to college.?
Alex Davis can be reached at (503) 589-6941.