Achievement Gap

Let’s Not Think That Because a District Is Largely Poor With Many English Learners That It Can’t Be Great

Although Oregon is mostly white, it’s whiteness obscures the fact that about 33 percent of students in k-12 schools are students of color and that number is growing. Oregon has also been experiencing growth in the percentage of students who are English-language learners (ELLs)—in some districts at least 50 percent of students are ELLs. Woodburn School District, in the heart of Oregon’s agriculture and wine producing region, is home to a student body that is 78 percent Latino, 72 percent ELLs and more than 95 percent poor. Usually, such numbers are accompanied by a dismal story about a lack of opportunity and widening achievement gap but that’s not the case in Woodburn. Overall, the district graduated 87 percent of its students on time—beating the state average by 15 percentage points, making it the highest in the state. Its ability to close the gap between Latino and white students as well as income equality make it an exception to patterns long ingrained in Oregon and around the nation.

A Community that Stood Up for Higher Standards

Woodburn hasn’t always been a great place for Latino families. During the 1970s, Latino agricultural and reforestation workers migrated there and were the target of anti-immigrant anger and unfair labor practices. In response to the marginalization of migrant workers, community organizers started Oregon’s first (and only)  Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United) and committed residents began to engage community leaders to provide the necessary services for Woodburn to become a welcoming place. Over a decade ago, parents and community members were frustrated by the exclusion of English as a second language students from mainstream classrooms. The district was using an English-only model for language acquisition and while students were provided sessions with a language specialist a few times per week, it was nowhere close to enough to allow them to really engage in their academic work. Parents and community organizations pushed Woodburn to consider dual immersion; they wanted their students to retain their native language while learning English alongside their peers. So Woodburn began to implement what it hoped would be a comprehensive k-12 dual-language program across the district. It started with early grades and 20 years later, the program is fully implemented.

The Benefits of Dual-Immersion

Research shows that after a few years in dual-language programs, students typically start to excel in both languages. Students make slower initial progress in learning languages, compared to English-only programs, but the learning doesn’t stop because students remain in immersion programs well beyond the time they master the language. This puts students who participate in dual-immersion programs at the top of the class in the long term. The district's dual-language program marks a change from the days when white families left the area in droves because of the demographic changes. Today, there are fewer white families in the district, but the ones that remain appreciate the model because of its obvious benefits (96 percent of families opt for the dual-language program despite the availability of an English-only option). Latino and Russian families, on the other hand, also feel that their cultures are being honored in ways they hadn’t previously. Research shows that dual-language programs "encourage cross-language, cross-ethnic friendships and relationships," says Claude Goldenberg, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Not only did Woodburn choose to challenge its students with high standards in language, it is also one of only four districts in Oregon to offer a k-12 International Baccalaureate program, where students are exposed to strong academics and supportive instructors, despite having the second highest child poverty rate in the state. Students do well when parents and communities work together to implement programs that demand more from students. When done well, dual-immersion programs are effective at closing the achievement gap for ELL students. We need to pay attention and look beyond our backyards for success stories.
Iris Maria Chávez
Iris Maria Chávez is an education advocate and communications consultant, currently working with national and Oregon focused organizations to advance equity by supporting the creation of just policies, engaging with communities and supporting communications efforts that better communities in Oregon and across the nation. Iris Maria has lived in Portland for just over a year and came to the ...

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