This District Has Figured Out How to Help English-Language Learners

Mar 10, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Iris Maria Chávez

Oregon doesn’t often come to mind when the education world talks about equity challenges; it’s usually overshadowed by bustling California and Washington state. But failing to include Oregon in the conversation about equity excludes a minefield of low-income students, students of color and English-language learners (ELLs). Oregon is among the nation’s worst when it comes to the  racial achievement gap (costing the state approximately $2 billion in lost revenue a year) and has one of the lowest graduation rates. It’s terrible at funding its schools, has nearly zero school choices, and struggles with  school attendance. Yes, Oregon has its challenges, but I also want to talk about the great work that is happening there, too.

Where Oregon Succeeds

The Oregon Department of Education has recognized David Douglas School District (DDSD) as one of eight Oregon districts to help English-language learners achieve. This is no small feat. DDSD is an urban district abutting Portland, where many Latino and Black families have moved to as housing prices in Portland have risen. DDSD has a student population that is 80 percent low-income and 42 percent ELL with over 40 languages spoken. As DDSD explored how best to serve ELLs, they realized that in many classrooms a majority of students were being pulled out for language instruction, which caused havoc in the class and resulted in missed academic time. Staff also realized that for any program to be successful, it would need to be done in tandem with changes in policy, funding and utilization of community resources. Recognizing this, they flipped their English-language development model on its head, with a “push-in” model, enhanced collaboration with community partners and parents, and blended funding streams (in addition to finding new ones)—creating the Language for All model. What is Language for All? Instead of pulling ELL students out during academic instruction, schools are setting aside daily blocks of time for oral-language development where all elementary school students participate. During this block of time students are placed in groups with others who have similar levels of English-language proficiency (some students do move to other classrooms to find their peers) and teachers are able to provide targeted instruction that supports the group’s language development needs. This model has the added benefit of recognizing that, particularly in the early grades, all students are language learners and it removes barriers between ELL-classified students and their peers.

Weathering the Budget Cuts

In 2012, after the district had begun the pilot for the ELL model,  state budget cuts threatened to hinder the effort. After careful thought, the district decided to speed up implementation and got creative about utilizing current staff. DDSD asked some English as a second language (ESL) teachers to take lead-teacher roles and others to be language coaches to support implementation of the new English-language development instructional block. With this new structure, schools that had previously needed several ESL teachers now only needed one language coach. The district also began to use federal Title I funds to support this work and are now hiring reading specialists who incorporate technology with literacy and language development programs. Schools are also leveraging funds from various federal funding sources. Organizations such as the  Children’s InstituteMetropolitan Family Services and  Padres Unidos are working with DDSD on early-learning opportunities and wrap-around services for students and their families. At Earl Boyles Elementary this has happened most quickly: They have tapped the expertise of families and community organizations to put in place a comprehensive pre-K program with weekly home visits, parenting, literacy, and financial training—all in a brand new wing of the school, the “community hub.” The gains are real. Betsy Hammond reported on Oregon Live that:
Last year, more than three-fourths of its English-language learners had gained proficiency by sixth grade, with many of them getting there by the end of grade four.
This effort to capitalize on the expertise of all stakeholders has provided a top-notch learning environment for all students and their families.

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 Pacific Northwest from Washington, D.C., where she worked for over a decade in education policy and advocacy for civil rights and advocacy organizations such as the Education Trust and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). Iris Maria earned a BA in history, sociology and African diaspora studies from Tulane University in New Orleans and a MA in social policy from the University of Chicago, during which she also worked as a social worker in the Chicago Public Schools.

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