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November 11th, 2009 BETH SLOVIC | News Stories
 

Why Can’t Ismail Read?

How Portland Public Schools’ response to a critical audit affects one Somali student.

     
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TRYING TO LEARN: Ismail Abdikadir outside Cleveland High School.
IMAGE: vivianjohnson.com

Portland Public Schools will get a visit in one week from state officials who will assess whether the district has sufficiently improved its teaching program for about 5,000 English-language learners.

A February state audit of the program, which followed a 2008 federal discrimination complaint against the district, painted a damning picture of PPS. Among other things, it found the district in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act for failing both to ensure that all students had “meaningful” access to on-grade-level core courses and that their parents readily received information in their native languages (see “Painful Lesson,” WW, Feb. 11, 2009).

A scene inside a low-income Southeast Portland apartment complex last Friday brought the consequences of PPS’s response to that audit into stark relief for one teenager.

Ismail Abdikadir, wearing a Nike T-shirt and a sarong, sat on a couch on the fourth floor of Catholic Charities’ Kateri Park Apartments in the Creston-Kenilworth neighborhood. An 18-year-old senior at nearby Cleveland High School, Abdikadir is Somali Bantu.

Clutching a paperback copy of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, he read haltingly, “No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own.”

Steve Levy, a volunteer tutor who works with Abdikadir at Cleveland, interrupted with a question: “What does ‘intelligences’ mean?”

Abdikadir, who hopes to be a Bollywood actor, took a deep breath. He looked as if he were gathering steam to answer. But then his eyes moved from Levy and the book to the flickering TV screen in the living room of the four-bedroom apartment he shares with his older brother, sister-in-law, younger brother and five nieces and nephews.

His eyes glazed over and he shrugged his shoulders. Only moments before he had insisted he understood the 224-page book, which had been assigned to him by his English teacher. “I didn’t finish,” he admitted sheepishly. “But my friend finished.”

About one out of every 10 PPS students is like Abdikadir—still learning English. In educational jargon, Abdikadir was “pre-literate” rather than illiterate when he arrived in 2004 and enrolled at Hosford Middle School. But like many districts, PPS assigns refugee students to grades by age, not educational attainment, which means Abdikadir started eighth grade instead of much lower.

Beyond its findings that the district had violated the Civil Rights Act, the February audit of PPS’s program for teaching students like Abdikadir also found too many immigrant students were in the equivalent of educational silos. They were enrolled in classes to improve their English but had little or no access to classes beyond electives. Besides missing out on opportunities to learn what the general student population was learning, immigrant and refugee students weren’t earning the credits they needed to graduate.

In response to that finding, PPS started to shift high school students like Abdikadir from segregated English-language classes to classes open to all students. To prepare, the district offered three days of voluntary instruction to teachers so they could perform what’s called sheltered instruction for immigrant students in classes with native English speakers. Essentially that meant teachers were supposed to lead two classes at the same time—one for the general population and one with supplemental materials for immigrant and refugee students, all in the same period.

Despite good intentions, the shift doesn’t represent a marked improvement, some teachers say. Now instead of getting special instruction that didn’t let students earn enough credits to get their diplomas, immigrant students are in credit-bearing core classes—but barely passing, if at all.

“This is a tragedy,” says Elisabeth Gern, resident services coordinator for Catholic Charities at Kateri Park. “They are forcing them to fail. I’m seeing children who were excited about school being overwhelmed.”

Abdikadir is no exception. Last year, he required assistance to read The Breadwinner, a novel written for middle-schoolers about an 11-year-old girl in Afghanistan. Just a few months later, he would be in a senior-level English class, reading H.G. Wells’ classic account of a Martian invasion of Earth.

In addition to a course called “English reading,” Abdikadir last year was enrolled in “English writing,” “academic support,” a low-level computer-based algebra class, instrumental music, integrated science and U.S. history. This year, Abdikadir is taking just one class specifically for English-language learners, he says. The rest—economics, second-year algebra, senior-level English—are the same classes taken by mainstream students.

Abdikadir is upbeat about the transition, which does put him within reach of graduating, even if his reading skills remain far below those of his peers. “First, I need to finish college,” he says. “Second, I need to make a new life. Third, I want to be an actor.”

Administrators are also optimistic about their overall response to the audit.

“I think they’ll find that we made progress,” says Xavier Botana, chief academic officer for PPS. “I hope they’ll find we’ve made significant progress.”


FACT: The state is withholding $617,918 in federal funds from the district until PPS complies with the February audit.
 
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