West Hills Parents Rally Around a Privately Funded Spanish Program

Debate raises questions about private fundraising in Portland Public Schools.

Ovidio Garcia was indignant.

Last week, the 47-year-old Nike footwear product director sat in front of the Portland School Board and railed against the possibility that Ainsworth Elementary could lose its Spanish immersion program, hurting Hispanic kids.

"This program has 30 years of success, with a diverse population of children that are thriving, integrated in this school," said Garcia, a former Olympic athlete who skied for Spain.

The school in question? It's among the richest in the city. And the Spanish program inside it is even more well-heeled.

Ainsworth Elementary parents raise the most money of any elementary school in Portland Public Schools for extra staffing—a third of which, after the first $10,000, the school is required by the district to share with other, less well-funded schools.

But the Spanish program at Ainsworth receives money from a separate nonprofit, which doesn't share its funds and yet hires three interns from Spain and Latin America to work for a year in classrooms.

Now the prospect that their privately funded program might move 3 miles west, and lose out on part of the fundraising powerhouse they've built, has Ainsworth parents turning against each other and furiously lobbying School Board members, who will ultimately decide the program's fate.

The remapping of school boundaries across Portland's westside will test the willingness of Superintendent Carole Smith and the School Board to defy wealthy West Hills parents by making their children attend less posh schools. Smith is currently considering recommendations from an advisory committee that rejected a plan to move kids across the Willamette River from Skyline Elementary to George Middle School in St. Johns ("Over the River," WW, Dec. 23, 2015).

But Ainsworth presents a thornier test—because its parents are among the wealthiest and best-connected in the city.

Garcia and other Ainsworth parents argued Feb. 17 against moving the Spanish immersion program from Ainsworth to nearby East Sylvan, a building whose conditions inspired School Board member Pam Knowles to remark in 2010 that she "couldn't believe we had students in the building, given the condition of the building."

Parents are skeptical of PPS's promises that the building will now be suitable for kids, though Knowles says improvements have been made since 2010 and more are coming. "Obviously we're going to do everything we need to do to the building to support the program," she says.

Ainsworth was Portland Public Schools' first dual language program. It was designed to attract middle-class families who might otherwise opt for private schools. Low enrollment is no longer one of Ainsworth's problems. Last year, PPS took a significant step toward transitioning the Ainsworth program away from serving predominantly English-speaking kids, setting aside one-third of spots in the program for native Spanish speakers. In all, 24 percent of 313 Spanish immersion students identify as Hispanic, PPS data show, though 94 percent of the families speak English at home.

If enough Spanish immersion parents refuse to move their children to East Sylvan and instead enroll in the local neighborhood programs at Ainsworth or Chapman, the whole point of moving the program could be for naught.

Garcia, who owns a million-dollar home in the Healy Heights neighborhood, told the School Board that changes were an "injustice that has been forced on us."

The debate throws a spotlight on privately funded programs in public schools that don't share resources with other parts of the district.

Ainsworth is hardly the only such program in Portland Public Schools. Parent-teacher associations, including those at Sunnyside and Richmond elementaries, have formed nonprofits to raise in excess of $75,000, opting to pay for programs at the school rather than extra staff—which would have to be reported to the district and shared with lower-income schools.

The Spanish immersion private nonprofit, Apoyemos al Español, has raised up to $82,000 in recent years.

Through the nonprofit, which serves the Spanish immersion programs at Ainsworth, West Sylvan Middle School and Lincoln High School, parents pay $5,000 a year for each intern, some of whom have completed teaching degrees in their home countries, and then host them in their homes for the year.

The intern program—along with the way the school has divided resources—has caused controversy within Ainsworth.

"These are two very different programs housed within its walls," Elizabeth Heald, an Ainsworth parent, told the School Board last week, describing overcrowding in her children's classrooms while Spanish immersion had aides and interns.

The district is now examining whether the private nonprofit breaks the requirement to share fundraising between schools through what's known as the equity fund.

"We're taking a close look at it," says PPS spokesman Jon Isaacs. "We definitely believe if an organization is raising money for staff in a school, they should be contributing to an equity fund, and we're reviewing whether there are similar fundraising organizations around the district."

Former Ainsworth parent Jim Jones, who set up the intern program, says PPS's Michael Bacon worked closely with parents.

"He was very excited to help us," says Jones, noting the idea that the district could place interns in all Spanish immersion programs came up at the time but didn't work out. "It would be awesome if PPS could figure out a way to expand the program."

But Debbie Armendariz, senior director of dual language immersion at PPS, says the number of native Spanish speakers in the program should be much higher. She's hoping to focus the district's dual language efforts on kids who don't know any English.

Armendariz says she would be happy if Ainsworth parents follow through with their threat to drop out of the Spanish immersion program if it moves.

"There is an opportunity within their threat," she says. "There are native speakers on the westside that need access to that program."

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