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February 11th, 2009 BETH SLOVIC | News Stories
 

Painful Lesson

New audit faults Portland Public Schools’ effort with students learning English.

     
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ONE IN 10: Roosevelt is one of 10 PPS high schools. About one in 10 students in PPS are non-native English speakers.
IMAGE: Jenna Biggs

Alejandra Hernandez says she was shocked to learn about two months ago that her son wouldn’t graduate on time from Roosevelt High School’s POWER Academy.

More shocking to Hernandez, however, was the fact she didn’t learn sooner that her 18-year-old-son—a senior who was born in Mexico and, therefore, eligible for extra help learning English in elementary and middle school—wouldn’t get a four-year diploma.

“It’s impossible for him to get all his credits,” Hernandez said in Spanish, her native language.

A new state audit of Portland Public Schools gives one explanation for why Hernandez was unprepared for the bad news: Portland Public Schools isn’t doing enough to communicate with parents whose first language isn’t English.

But the audit, which took officials from the Oregon Department of Education’s civil rights division to more than half of PPS’s roughly 90 schools in January, went even further.

It also found that schools districtwide deny some portion of their immigrant students access to classes at their grade level. They do this because the students’ English is poor. But some of them might understand the classes’ core content if they had assistance, the audit found. Not giving students access to those classes violates the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The audit, which was presented to Superintendent Carole Smith on Tuesday, Feb. 10, does not name specific schools or identify which groups of students might be affected. WW obtained a copy of the audit in advance of Tuesday’s meeting through a public-records request. Read a PDF of the audit here.

“This has been a longstanding issue,” Smith acknowledged Monday before reviewing the audit.

The latest findings come at a bad time, however. PPS—along with the other five school districts entirely or partially within city limits—is facing increasing pressure to do more with less. The state budget forecast calls for at least a $20 million drop in funding for PPS this year with more drastic cuts expected next year. That means the student-to-teacher ratio is likely to widen. Meanwhile, politicians like Mayor Sam Adams are asking school districts to slash dropout rates.

Steve Levy, a retired Portlander, volunteers daily for three hours at Cleveland High School, where he works one-on-one with students from Somalia and Myanmar. He sees firsthand how students who are immigrants and refugees often fill their schedules with art classes, P.E. and study halls because of inadequate resources to help them in math and science classes.

Teachers, he says, are doing the best they can. But the range of students they encounter in a single day prevents many of them from doing more. “Everyone gets shorted in that situation,” he says.

This week’s state audit is the result of a regularly scheduled review of how Oregon school districts use federal money under No Child Left Behind.

Last year, however, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights agreed to investigate PPS’s program for educating its immigrant and refugee population. The federal office dropped its plans after learning of the state’s audit. In 1994, the federal government imposed a 10-year program to monitor how PPS worked with its non-native students.

Martín González is a PPS parent who also serves on the school board. A Spanish-speaking native of Mexico, he spoke passionately about bringing equitable services to district students when he sought a seat on the board last year. He is optimistic that the new audit might bring results.

“There’s a lot of room for improvement,” he says.


FACT: About 4,500 PPS students are eligible for extra English instruction, which brings additional state money to the school district.
 
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