For the second time since 1994, advocates for immigrant and refugee students in the Portland Public Schools say the state's largest school district is failing their children.
Activists for nearly 5,000 Asian, Slavic, Latino and African students—who represent more than one in 10 PPS students—allege the district's program for teaching English to non-native children is "utterly dismal and totally unacceptable," according to a recent complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.
"We already did it once and nothing has changed," says Marta Güembes, the local activist who filed the complaint with the help of Richard Luccetti, another longtime Portland agitator. "We still have the same problems."
The federal agency is reviewing the complaint, which was mailed April 30. If the office decides to investigate, that move would mark the second time in two decades that the feds have had to step in to monitor PPS's English language learner program, also known as ELL.
The first complaint, filed in August 1994, resulted in a settlement agreement that required corrective action, including improved monitoring of immigrant students' achievement and 10 years of outside oversight of the district's program.
The latest complaint is based on several new findings by PPS's Bilingual Parent Advisory Council, which includes some of the same community members who participated in the first discrimination filing. Among the group's findings:
• ELL classes lack uniformity across the district. Programs at each school depend on a mix of site-based staffing decisions, the size of the ELL population, and students' needs. But in some cases, students who can't read or write in English are grouped with others who already have some English proficiency.
• Non-native students attending "small schools" on the Marshall, Roosevelt, Madison and Jefferson high school campuses are limited in their selection of ELL classes. Assignments to classes are based on which "small school" students attend rather than language ability or other factors.
• The splitting of high schools into two or three "small schools" reduces the number of teachers working in those schools and limits what classes are offered to serve ELL students in the first place.
• There isn't enough bilingual support to help immigrant students in classes such as math and biology.
• Guidance counselors at high schools, due to a lack of other options, must let ELL students fill their schedules with classes that don't require English, such as art, P.E. or study hall. This diminishes students' chances of earning required credits and, as a result, graduating in four years—if at all.
"These are students who want to come to school, and they're missing opportunities to learn," says David Colton, a guidance counselor at one of the "small schools" on the Madison campus in Northeast Portland.
About half of the nearly 5,000 PPS students qualifying for the district's ELL program speak Spanish as their first language, according to ELL program director Diana Fernandez. Vietnamese, Chinese, Somali, Russian and Ukrainian are also commonly spoken in the district.
The difficulties inherent in teaching immigrant populations aren't unique to Portland, Fernandez says. But her staff and others in the district want to do more, she says.
As part of the district's newly announced plan to improve services for gifted students, PPS has devised strategies that should also help non-native English speakers. Next year, for example, the district will begin testing more students for inclusion in its "gifted" program, and those tests will be available in Spanish and Russian for the first time.
"We're all struggling with how we can better serve these kids," Fernandez says.
The State of Oregon gives school districts $5,800 per student. But districts with students who qualify as "English language learners" get an extra $2,900 per ELL student.
Last week, PPS bowed to pressure from parent advocates and the Oregon Department of Education with a plan to better serve the district's gifted students, whom advocates say were also being left behind.