Will Woodburn schools meet Oregon’s 40-40-20 educations goals?

by Melanie Davis
Share This Article

Trilingual? Woodburn school board member Gemma Punzo says a few ambitious parents have their children working on fluency in Spanish, Russian, and English. Photo by Richard Jones, El Hispanic News Trilingual? Woodburn school board member Gemma Punzo says a few ambitious parents have their children working on fluency in Spanish, Russian, and English. Photo by Richard Jones, El Hispanic News
By Richard Jones, El Hispanic News
  Woodburn, OR — Oregon’s educators have a goal for the year 2025: 40 percent of adults will have a four year college degree or higher, another 40 percent will have two years of-post secondary preparation — a two year college degree — and the remaining 20 percent will have a high school diploma or the equivalent. A chart published by Western Oregon University showed that in 2005 the state’s adults, 25 years old or above, had a long way to go to reach the 40-40-20 plan’s goal. At that point Oregon’s numbers were 28, 33, 26, with 13 percent of adults not graduating from high school. The noble goal of a more educated world conjures images of more health care providers, of better means of transportation, politicians aware of — and able to avoid — the blunders of the past, and, for the public’s schools, playwrights and musicians whose works can survive for centuries to generate the heights of human beauty. Unfortunately, a number of barriers block the paths to more effective education. Moreover, no single tactic can solve every problem. Under-funded schools in low income neighborhoods have their problems. In school systems, such as the David Douglas District in Portland, some 55 different languages are spoken. The Woodburn School District’s 25,000 residents include 59 percent Latinos from several ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Moreover, an estimated five percent of Woodburn’s students come from families that observe Russian traditions. This would seem to present a problem of trying to teach students both subject matter and the English language simultaneously. Surprisingly, this “handicap†might actually prove to be a great advantage in Woodburn.

Finding the right path

Last May, three Woodburn High School teens were experimenting with a YouTube trick. While messing around with chemicals, they set fire to a school computer room, causing about $6 million in damages. In Woodburn, $6 million is serious money. And then something special happened. As Gemma Punzo put it, “I was surprised how everyone helped out.†Punzo’s seat on the Woodburn District School Board gave her a great perspective. Woodburn citizens provided materials and labor to help clean up the mess. Those who couldn’t handle heavy lifting provided food for those who could. Punzo was impressed how many people stepped up in Woodburn’s time of need. In March, Punzo provided a non-intrusive tour through three Woodburn schools. The tour provided some insights on how an active town can affect schools — and, more importantly, students. The children in all three rooms — second, seventh, and eighth grades — never looked up from their tasks to scan the outsiders. All the teachers were on a casual, friendly basis with Punzo. In Jesús Sandoval’s seventh grade history class, 29 students had their eyes focused on 29 small laptop computers. All business, no chatter, no notes being passed. Sandoval also teaches English and health at night at “Family University.†In Lisa Wolf’s Russian room, about two-dozen first and second grade boys and girls sat on a carpet paying attention to their teacher. Wolf said that first grade classes were conducted in a ratio of about 65 percent Russian to 35 percent English. By second grade, classes become 45 percent English. Punzo says a few ambitious parents have their children working on becoming fluent in Spanish, Russian, and English. Before being appointed to the school board in 2008, Punzo, served as an interpreter in the Keizer school district and in Portland. She soon grasped the importance of her post on the school board, encouraging her to run for election in 2009. Now, with five years of experience, she is running unopposed for re-election in 2013. Punzo sees her role as communicating with teachers, identifying their problems, and sharing information with the four other school board members. With five minds at work, problems usually find solutions. In her spare time she is a notary and at other times she writes and leads wedding ceremonies.

A new captain at the helm

“Rushing English is not as effective in the long term,†Woodburn School Superintendent Charles "Chuck" Ransom says. Photo by Richard Jones, El Hispanic News “Rushing English is not as effective in the long term,†Woodburn School Superintendent Charles "Chuck" Ransom says. Photo by Richard Jones, El Hispanic News
Early in 2013 David Bautista was doing an exceptional job as superintendent of Woodburn School District. Someone in Salem thought Bautista was ready for Oregon’s big leagues, and in April he officially dusted off his desk in the Oregon Department of Education and became a state assistant superintendent. Back in Woodburn, Charles “Chuck†Ransom filled in as interim superintendent of the school district. In the meantime the school board is conducting a search for a permanent replacement. Ransom says he intends to apply. If selected, he can erase the “interim†tag and become superintendent of Woodburn schools. Punzo has nothing but praise for Ransom, who was principal where her two children went to school. “Chuck was a very good principal,†she says. “Kids relate to him. He can communicate with the kids.†In early March Ransom, while in the midst of rearranging his world, took time to explain the game plan for making Oregon’s 40-40-20 goal a reality. Not unlike a baseball slugger, Ransom has his eye on the fences. Not only does he see the 40-40-20 plan as within reach, he foresees “students from our system [being] the best in the nation.†He aims for Woodburn schools to deliver “a world-class education.†Considering the percentage of kindergarten students coming in speaking only Spanish or Russian, how does he expect these youngsters to catch up, let alone excel? “Rushing English is not as effective in the long term,†Ransom says. “They should learn [subjects] in their native language first, while they learn English.†Therefore he opposes immediately immersing non-English speaking children into an English-only context. He sees that as overloading them. He plans to first emphasize basic reading and writing skills in their family’s language. As they “learn how to learn†during the first four years — kindergarten through third — they can increase to a 50-50 dual language model where English becomes one of their two languages. “We’re confident in our model,†Ransom says. “We’re just trying to polish it.†Some schools in the Salem-Keizer district and Westside Elementary School in Hood River, Ransom says, use similar programs. “We’ve studied Ysleta [School District] in El Paso, Texas. They’re ahead of everybody,†Ransom says. “We’re learning from them.†Ransom notes that each incoming child needs to be individually assessed. “There’s no one model that suits all,†he cautions. One of Woodburn’s advantages, Ransom says, is that 60 percent or more of the town’s residents are Latino. This allows schools to fill classes with children of similar backgrounds. On the other hand, with widely varied ethnic groups and classes with only a few students, some schools find it difficult — and expensive — to provide English Language Learner (ELL) classes. This spreads teachers very thin. In Woodburn’s case, with large numbers of Russian and Spanish speaking students, teachers can be deployed much more effectively. Ransom soon found that no leader is ever without critics. One newspaper reader charged that Woodburn’s graduation rate was beneath Oregon’s average. “Nothing could be further from the truth,†Ransom responded. The Woodburn Independent supported him by running his rebuttal in its March 6 issue. Although 58.3 percent of students graduated in four years, that was only half the story, Ransom noted in his printed response. He noted that about 20 percent more graduated in five years through various other paths such as Chemeketa Community College, GED tests, the Bridges programs, and other means. By Ransom’s calculations, 90.8 percent of Woodburn students earn a diploma or the equivalent. “We are very proud of all our students for their commitment, their families, for their involvement, as well as the dedication of our amazing faculty,†his rebuttal concluded.

Woodburn pride

One other possible factor might bode well for education in Woodburn. Wearing up-to-the-minute clothes can help anyone feel special. Teenage boys love to impress young women by driving the flashiest (and loudest) automobiles possible. Perhaps the same psychology might also work for towns. Ten years ago, on Front Street along the railroad tracks, downtown Woodburn looked just a bit worn down — and maybe just a little hazardous. Today a new concrete sidewalks runs from end to end of Front Street. This not only reduces the risk of pedestrians being hit by cars, but it also looks clean and fresh. Moreover, this ambiance makes the many shops and restaurants look more attractive to customers. Across the railroad tracks, Chemeketa Community College is now open for business. On First Street a public lawn subtly tells people they are wanted and welcome to select one of the many chairs and sit awhile. A fountain invites residents and visitors to stop a while and eavesdrop on bird chatter. The unspoken message is, “We want you to realize that you are someone special.†On blocks in all directions most of the buildings are freshly painted. The cleanliness suggests that Woodburn is a city on the move. In the handsome, two-floor Woodburn Public Library tri-lingual signs — English, Spanish, and Russian — announce that everyone is welcome. A few steps from the library young girls practice their pas de deux in the afternoon at the Willamette Ballet Academy. Can the image of a neat, fresh small city do for its citizens what a convertible or new pair of shoes can do for a juvenile? The answer should appear in five or 10 years. In the meantime, keep an eye on Woodburn.