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April 15th, 2009 BETH SLOVIC | News Stories
 

Changing Courses

Immigrant students scramble to catch up after PPS gets called to the principal’s office.

     
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ROUGH ROAD: Martín González of the Portland School Board says the audit has highlighted concerns that have been bubbling for years.
IMAGE: Jarod Opperman

Two months after Oregon education officials faulted Portland Public Schools for inadequately addressing the needs of immigrant and refugee students, the state is demanding changes that some teachers say will make learning harder for those disadvantaged students.

Back in February, a state Department of Education audit of PPS’s program for educating “English-language learners” found, among other things, that some of the district’s 5,000 immigrant and refugee students were not enrolled in core content classes such as math, science and social studies (see “Painful Lesson,” WW, Feb. 11, 2009).

Midway through the semester, PPS has asked schools to change the class schedules of dozens of students across the district—from Marshall High School in Southeast to Madison High School in Northeast—to comply with the audit. But the changes aren’t necessarily for the better, teachers say.

At Madison, for example, about 50 immigrant and refugee students are possibly being shifted into new classes this month, amid protests from teachers who say all the students are not prepared for the transition.

“We recognize this is a MAJOR disruption for students and teachers but we are obligated to follow the audit’s recommendations,” Jeff Spalding, an administrator at Madison, wrote in an email to teachers Monday, April 13.

At a practical level, the move midway through the semester could be unsettling to immigrant students who in some cases will be forced to catch up with native English-speaking peers who’ve been studying a course’s subject since January.

Diana Fernandez, the district’s director of ELL programs, says every possible move has been examined on a case-by-case basis. She says a student’s schedule won’t change if it doesn’t make sense. “There’s flexibility here,” Fernandez says.

At a philosophical level, the move raises larger questions about the entire approach of the district’s program for teaching English-language learners.

Since February, teachers and district officials have been meeting to consider new methods for educating immigrant and refugee students, some of whom arrive without ever having set foot in a school, let alone having held a pencil.

Some teachers support the idea of “clustering” immigrant students at certain schools where they can receive intensive services. To some critics, clustering appears to be just another form of segregation, and for that reason alone is unpopular, says Martín González, an appointed Portland School Board member running in the May 19 election to retain his seat.

PPS has decided instead to focus on training classroom teachers across the district in “sheltering techniques” that will let them teach English-language learners in mainstream classrooms alongside native speakers.

Kathy Paxton-Williams, a teacher at Marshall High School who’s worked with English-language learners for 11 years, preferred the clustering option. “We worry still the students will get lost in the shuffle,” she says.

Fernandez says the district will also introduce other ELL improvements next year in response to the audit. Meanwhile, students like Truman Johnny, a 16-year-old refugee from Myanmar, may face new course materials this month. Neither Johnny, a freshman at Madison, nor his parents had been informed of any schedule changes as of April 13, and that worries Rebecca Levison, president of the teacher’s union.

“It’s hard enough,” she says.”

 
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