Auditor: Portland Public Schools out of touch with state and federal rules

by Melanie Davis
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Martín González
Richard Jones El Hispanic News Writer Portland, OR — The Tower of Babel was small change compared to what Portland Public Schools (PPS) face. In this district students speak more than 70 different languages and dialects according to District Performance Auditor Richard C. Tracy. In the 2009-10 school year more than 4,700 PPS students qualified as English Language Learners (ELL). “The PPS district has been out of compliance with federal and state rules governing the provision of service to ELL students for 13 of the past 17 years …between 1994 and 2010,†Tracy charged. In his report — “District Performance Audit on English Language Learners†— Tracy noted that ELL students are not learning English as well as they should. After hearing Tracy’s report, the Portland School Board voted on Nov. 30 to call on the school district to prepare an action plan and provide regular reports to the board on changes to the ELL program. Matt Shelby, PPS communications director, reported in a press release, “In response to the audit, PPS hired an English Language Learner intervention officer to work with the school district’s ELL director to ensure continued compliance with state and federal regulations, improve outcomes for ELL students and take quick action when needed. The intervention officer will report directly to Superintendent [Carole] Smith and Chief Academic Officer Carla Randall.†Tracy praised the school district’s swift response to his findings. He cited PPS for four “recurrent problemsâ€:
  • Poor delivery of English language proficiency instruction,
  • Inadequate access to core academic classes,
  • Using unlicensed staff to provide instruction services and lack of appropriate professional development, and
  • Inappropriate methods for identifying eligible students and exiting proficient students.
Tracy’s statistics show that although 50.5 percent of all ELL students speak Spanish, the number of Latinos — as well as Russians and Chinese/Cantonese — has decreased over the last five years. The number of Somali/Maay-Maay speakers has increased significantly and Arabic and Vietnamese speakers grew slightly. The press release quoted Director Martín González as stating, “So at the end of the day, this resolution and others approved by the board are calling attention to the need to change or address the inequities. From my perspective it is important for the school board to come out strongly in a statement that business as usual as it relates to ESL students is not acceptable.†The word from Salem The Oregon Department of Education had a more positive take. “Our state is making steady progress toward ensuring all English language learners become academically proficient in English within five years,†Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan Castillo said in a press release. “However, results today indicate we have a long way to go before every English learner is acquiring language skills at the rate needed to thrive academically.†According to Susanne Smith, the Oregon Department of Education’s communications director, last year 61,853 Oregon students enrolled in English Language Development programs. Smith noted “Oregon state law provides districts with an average of about $2,700 in state school funds for each ELL student each year. The federal government provides about $135 per student in supplemental funding to school districts each year.†The results? The press release noted that in the 2009-10 school year 49.5 percent of ELL students moved up one level of English proficiency. Some 15.3 percent of all ESL students reached proficiency and exited the program. This compares with 10.8 percent in 2008-09 and 7.8 percent in 2007-08. Of the ELL students who had been in the program for five years, 26.7 percent achieved English proficiency. This was better than the 18.2 percent in 2008-09 and the 16.3 percent in 2007-08. Despite these gains, Oregon did not meet the federal Annual Measurable Achievement Objectives for ELL students. If 26.7 percent mastered English in five years, then that means that 73.3 percent did not. PPS takes a closer look On December 16, Randall sat down with the School Achievement Committee and laid out an eight-step plan to jump start the Portland’s ELL program. Randall loosely adapted her plan from an article in the Harvard Business review. In brief, she suggested that they should:
  • Establish a sense of urgency,
  • Form a powerful guiding coalition,
  • Create a vision,
  • Communicate the vision,
  • Empower others to act on the vision,
  • Achieve some short-term gains to establish confidence,
  • Consolidate gains and strengthen momentum for other gains, and
  • Help educators to understand the changes lest they revert to the old patterns.
Sitting with a dozen school achievement committee members, Randall shared some of her insights. “As an administrator in four high schools,†she said, “I’ve noticed that there are a lot of good ideas, but the implementation is poor.†She noticed a lot of emphasis placed on social services, but not much attention given to the class room. Citing a need for better methods of measuring a student’s progress, she noted that a student may be placed at one level in one school and another in a different school. She stressed the need to establish responsibilities and identify who is responsible for what. González called on teachers to tell parents about their rights. Many parents see teachers and principals as authority figures and hesitate to challenge them when they feel their children are not receiving an adequate education.