Miracle on 135th Avenue

A Portland high school where students speak 55 languages shows Oregon how to reform education.

David Douglas High School

Her science teacher lobs facts at the 30 students about the periodic table—hydrogen is the first one, the symbols for gold and silver are based on Latin roots, and the bigger an atom's nucleus gets, the more unstable it becomes.

He's talking too fast for Hae Nay. When she arrived in Portland from Thailand three years ago, she knew two English words: water and eat. She's now almost fluent in English, an A student who dreams of becoming a nurse. But she still must concentrate more than other students and struggles to keep up with some teachers.

"Atom comes from the Greek word atomos, which means 'indivisible,'" the teacher says. "Who knows what 'indivisible' means?"

Hae Nay's attention is divided between her teacher and a loud-talking girl in puffy pastel high-tops who flirts with a boy nearby and fiddles with a friend's sparkly scarf.

"This is so cute," she says.

The teacher glares at the girl. "Zip it," he says.

“I can’t do that,” the girl says with a big smile. 

Hae Nay wants to follow the lesson, but she admits later the girl's chatter fascinates her, and that her attention drifted from the elements. Science may be her future, but she is also trying to master the ways of American teens. 

"I listen to her all day," Hae Nay says of the girl. "I learn from her."

Wearing pink press-on fingernails and a sweatshirt and Nikes—the David Douglas uniform of teenage girls—Hae Nay has succeeded at blending in. But David Douglas has also succeeded at propelling Hae Nay—and thousands of immigrant students like her—toward graduation in an Oregon educational system too often defined by failure.

With 2,893 students, David Douglas in outer Southeast Portland is Oregon's largest high school. The district as a whole has the highest rate of low-income students in the Portland area. It has gangs, drugs and enough teen pregnancy to warrant an on-campus day-care center.

David Douglas High is also a United Nations of teenagers. Students here speak more than 55 languages, and almost half started school speaking little or no English—numbers unmatched anywhere else in Oregon.

These challenges would sink most schools. But the David Douglas School District has the highest graduation rate—nearly 69 percent—of any district in Portland except Riverdale, which is fed by the wealthy Dunthorpe neighborhood.

In 2010, Education Week named David Douglas High one of 21 national "education overachievers" for a graduation rate that outperforms expectations. Superintendents from Texas to North Carolina have called asking what's behind the David Douglas magic.

The 2013 Legislature has just convened, and Gov. John Kitzhaber is insisting lawmakers push for big improvements in Oregon schools. The state has one of the worst graduation rates in the nation, and Kitzhaber wants to push it to 100 percent by the time today's kindergartners are high-school seniors.

Real change will come from figuring out what works—and a model for that is David Douglas.

"They are putting together a way where kids don't get lost," says Samuel Henry, a Portland State University education professor and member of the new Oregon Education Investment Board. "Let's take their best practices and spread them around."

David Douglas' six buildings spread across its 26-acre campus, surrounded by streets of neat bungalows, boarded-up houses, check-cashing operations, strip clubs, auto-body shops, quinceañera suppliers—the low-zoning mishmash known as East Portland. 

Inside, you could be visiting any giant high school—trophy cases, dim hallways and the mascot, a red-and-white kilted Scotsman, painted on the wall.

When the bell rings, students pour into the hallways and through the breezeways between classes. Trying to move through the crowds is like swimming against a riptide. Students' voices melt into one unbroken sound. Most kids wear jeans and sneakers. Only an occasional girl in a headscarf and long skirt hints of the international nature of the school.

But when the PA comes on, morning announcements include after-school meetings of the Somali and Burmese clubs. And flags of nations representing the home countries of students hang from the cafeteria ceiling. The school started with 46 flags in 2004, and there's barely room to hang another.

In Jennifer Healey's English-conversation class, Spanish speakers sit near the window, Ukrainians sit up front, and four Chinese boys sit on their desks speaking Cantonese. 

"English," Healey says to the Chinese boys. "Practice English."

Hae Nay Paw has no choice. No one else speaks her native tongue, called Karen (pronounced ka-REN). She chats with her friend Vic, a recent immigrant from Myanmar, about Hae Nay's pink fingernails.

Healey, with red hair and a deep voice that grows scratchy as the day wears on, begins the class by explaining the word "the." Say it with a long "e"—theee—when the next word starts with a vowel.

"You say, 'We are going to theee exhibition,'" Healey says, drawing out the eee sound. "Native speakers make this mistake all the time. It drives me crazy."

Hae Nay raises her hand. 

"Why do we say thuh with 'hour'?" she asks.

"Good question," Healey says. "The silent 'h' separates the 'e' of 'the' and the 'o' from 'hour.'"

“What is ‘exhibition’?” Hae Nay asks. 

Healey switches to a pronunciation game. Hae Nay volunteers first to read words that sound similar.

"Our and are," she says. "Sheep and ship. Police and please."

Healey smiles. She thinks Hae Nay has turned out to be a fantastic student. "If I had to bet," Healey says later, "she's one I'd put money on."

But Healey has seen her share of frustrations and defeats in trying to help immigrant students survive David Douglas. A week earlier, Healey saw four immigrants withdraw from school; her eyes tear up when she mentions it.

Latino, Vietnamese, Russian and Chinese speakers make up the larger groups. But more than half of immigrant students at David Douglas account for most of the 50-plus other languages, including Tagalog, Serbian and Creole. Healey has had students who came to her speaking only Maay Maay, Krahn and Yapese.

She's been a teacher for 16 years, most of them at David Douglas. As a kid, her family moved from state to state, and she attended six high schools in four years. "I know what's its like to be a smart kid and be failing," Healey says. "I also know that moving gives you the chance to reintroduce yourself."

She was an acting major in college who started out teaching kindergarten and never saw herself as a language instructor. But Healey, who spoke French, was identified by school officials as someone who could teach language skills. When the number of immigrant students increased sharply a decade ago, the district offered intensive training to teach English as a second language. Healey jumped at the chance.

The Chinese students are talking in Cantonese again.

"Since there's already a lot of talking," Healey says, "we are going to end with extemporaneous speaking. Do you remember what 'extemporaneous' means? It means speaking off the top of your head. Speaking without preparation."

Students reach into a tin soup can and draw slips of paper with prompts. 

Hae Nay stands in front of the class and reads her prompt: “What is your favorite hobby?” 

"My favorite hobby is to play with friends, knitting and reading," she says, her voice soft, the "r's" sticking in the back of her throat.

"They tend to be more open; they have an excitement and appreciation that kids who have been in our school system for 10 years might not," Healey says.

Many immigrant students grew up in refugee camps, some having never gone to school, sat at a desk or used a notebook. (Teachers say refugee kids often talk of becoming doctors and nurses.) Math teachers tell of high-school-age students who could not count or understand the concept of numbers.

Nor do many know what a test is. One year, immigrant students taking a multiple-choice test were instructed to choose A, B, C or D on a computer screen and then hit "Enter." The answers all came back "D." Teachers investigated and realized the students clicked A, B, C and D—and when they entered their answer, their last choice got recorded.

"We weren't as prepared to teach a room," Healey says, "where there may not be one kid who shares anything with your background."

Healey says a 15-year-old Chinese boy was so traumatized before his arrival he spent his first year just staring out the window. An Iraqi student of Healey's withdrew two weeks ago to care for his younger siblings because his parents are too paralyzed by their experiences to cope. 

A student from Myanmar on a field trip to downtown Portland saw a soldier dressed in camouflage and confided to a teacher that the sight triggered memories of her mother's rape by soldiers. Last week, a girl from Bhutan began screaming in the hallway; no one present could speak Nepali to help her.

"Some kids come with what I call 'invisible backpacks'—trauma, malnutrition, abuse, whatever," Healey says. "Until they learn some English, we don't really know what is inside them."


Hae Nay Paw grew up in a Thai refugee camp watched by guards and surrounded by pig manure, bamboo houses and trees she loved to climb. Today she might be 14, maybe 15. She has no records, and has never celebrated a birthday.

She is Karen, a persecuted minority in Myanmar, and her family fled to Thailand before she was born. Her relatives shunned her because her father wasn't Karen. She sometimes lived with her drug-addicted mother and violent stepfather, who she says once tried to kill her with a knife.

“My mom say, ‘Run away!’” Hae Nay says. “I ran into the forest. I didn’t know what to do.” 

She was 7. Her aunt found her asleep in the woods and brought her home. Her new family—the aunt, an uncle and four younger cousins—immigrated to the United States in January 2010, part of a wave of Karen immigrants to East Portland. Hae Nay's family lives in a two-bedroom apartment near Southeast 122nd Avenue and Lincoln Street and attends a local Seventh-day Adventist Church.

In the past 20 years, as Portland Public Schools' enrollment shrank, David Douglas' grew by 35 percent. While other districts saw increases in Spanish-speaking students, the areas around David Douglas became such a magnet for immigrants that Portland now has the 12th-largest per-capita refugee population in the country.

By the time Hae Nay arrived, East Portland had already seen waves of immigrants from Vietnam, Russia, Somalia and Nepal.

At Ron Russell Middle School, she could not communicate with anyone. "I was really scared," she says. "But I'm not so shy. I didn't know how to say, 'I need a drink of water' so I just say, 'water' and let the teacher figure it out."

She now listens to Selena Gomez and One Direction and counts among her favorite movies The Lorax, The Incredible Hulk and anything starring Jackie Chan.

Hae Nay says she doesn't have close friends and wouldn't have time to hang out with them outside school—she has homework and chores. 

She is fine-boned and short for her grade, not yet 5 feet, possibly the result of malnutrition.  

"I know I look 12. I hate it!" she says. "The only time I cried at school was when this girl cut in front of me. I tried to say, 'Hey, you cut.' She couldn't understand what I was saying. She say, 'You are so little, why are you talking to me?' I went to the bathroom and cried so hard. Why am I so little?"


The David Douglas district—when faced with dramatic demographic changes starting in the 1990s—had some inherent advantages that helped its schools adapt.

One was thrift. The David Douglas tax base has never been wealthy, so the district—unlike Portland Public Schools—never had the money to create a large, expensive overhead of administrators and executives. With one giant high school, David Douglas doesn't have to pay a busload of principals and administrative staff, and spends 4 percent less on overhead costs than the average Oregon high school.

Conversations with teachers and administrators about why the school succeeds often leave more questions than answers. Some point to the determination of immigrant students. Others point to a strong sense of community. The school offers after-school English lessons for parents, and teachers are encouraged to seek out parents, even to visit them at home if they can't be reached by phone. And others argue the teaching staff is especially committed to the challenges posed by language barriers as well as dealing with low-income students. 

John Harrington, David Douglas High's principal until he retired in 2004, says the district and the school gave themselves permission to go out and find solutions, without looking over their shoulders at what state officials in Salem might say.

In turn, he says, he hired teachers who had foreign-language skills, but looked even more for those who would share the school's sense of community. "I looked for a willingness," says Harrington, now president of Central Catholic High School, "to join what we were doing."

Fourteen years ago, David Douglas High also created sheltered core classes for non-English speakers, creating a place where students and teachers weren't embarrassed to try new methods and make mistakes. Math teacher Kaitlin Nelson recalls teaching students about prisms, and one student thought she was talking about prisons.

"I wrote both words on the blackboard, we practiced saying both," she says. "When you are teaching math, you are teaching language."

The district has reduced the number of sheltered classes in elementary and middle schools, and started phasing them out at the high school after it cut 30 teaching positions in 2010. District administrators were concerned they could not offer sheltered classes to all who needed them. They also suspected some sheltered classes were actually remedial and not up to the grade level, as federal law requires.

The dilemma is apparent in Hae Nay Paw's experience. In sheltered classes, she's engaged, outspoken and eager to help others. In her language arts class, Hae Nay is assigned to work with two other students—her friend Vic, and Mahamed, a tall, thin 17-year-old sophomore who came from Ethiopia two years ago. They're supposed to answer questions on "The Quilt," a short story about immigrant traditions, which they will present to the class.  

Hae Nay corrects the others' English. Vic says "lifes." Hae Nay pronounces it "lives."

"He gave her dry flowers," Mahamed says of a character in the story.

"No," Hae Nay says. "It's dried flowers."

But she says she prefers non-sheltered classes because they expose her to how American kids talk—without accents, and with the latest slang. Other immigrant students won't correct her pronunciation.

"American kids do," she says. "The best thing for learning English would be having class with American students, and with the teacher explaining how to do class work clearly."

But in blended classes— such as Nathan Owings' science class—Hae Nay doesn't talk and can't always follow the teacher.

Owings has a bit of drill sergeant about him and has trained students to answer "Present, sir!" when he calls roll. It's in Owings class where Hae Nay tries to go unnoticed, and the chatty girl keeps distracting her.

In 1999, Owings became David Douglas' first sheltered science teacher for students learning English, and he still uses techniques he learned then, even though his class has a larger mix of kids.

In his science class—where a third of the students are learning English—Owings writes notes on the board, tells stories of physicist Niels Bohr, breaks down vocabulary, repeats important points, draws pictures, makes bad jokes, and has the kids answer questions until he thinks they get key concepts.

For his students still learning English, Owings admits, he doesn't pause and check in as often as he should.

But he points to what may be one of the secrets of David Douglas High's success: Teachers such as him who were trained to teach immigrant students found these techniques were also powerful tools for teaching native English speakers as well.

"Quite frankly, our regular kids speak a different language," he says. "They are teenagers."


Next year, the David Douglas district faces an $8 million shortfall, equivalent to 70 to 80 teaching positions. A tutoring program for immigrants may be cut when a city Schools Uniting Neighborhoods grant expires this year. The remaining sheltered high-school classes are also at risk.

But if David Douglas has one lesson for the rest of Oregon, it's this: A school that seeks to change its destiny must have the commitment of teachers and parents, a keen eye on what data show, a willingness to experiment and give up old habits, and leaders who insist on exceeding last year's accomplishments.

This determination to do better year after year has produced a catchphrase at David Douglas: "Plus one."

Students such as Hae Nay Paw only know they have been given a chance they didn't have before.

"If one day I grow up and be a nurse, I think I'd like to get kids that are like me and help them," she says. "I have a lot of things to learn. I love learning. I want to learn forever.” 

  1. David Douglas High School has counted 55 languages spoken by its students as their first languages.
  1. Half are native English speakers, and one-third speak the languages of East Portland’s major immigrant groups: Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian and Cantonese.
  1. Here’s the entire list: English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian, Chinese (Cantonese), Ukrainian, Romanian, Somali, Nepali, Burmese, Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), Chuukese, Lao, Tagalog, Bosnian, Cambodian, Hmong, Karen, Chinese (other), Turkish, Thai, Maay Maay, Oromo, Mien, Tigrinya, Hindi, Samoan, Swahili, Yapese, Albanian, Amharic, Creole, Farsi, French, Greek, Igbo, Malay, Tibetan, Tongan, Armenian, Filipino, Haitian Creole, Japanese, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Krahn, Palauan, Pohnpeian, Rohingya, Serbian, Serbo-Croatian, Sindhi, Twi and Yoruba.

SOURCE: David Douglas School District

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