Community ESL meeting ends in touchy standoff

by Melanie Davis
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Angela Sandino
Richard Jones El Hispanic News Writer Portland, OR — After a passionate meeting at Madison High School the Wednesday after Valentine’s Day, the path to improving Portland’s program for children learning English as a second language (ESL) still remained unclear. The “Portland Public Schools Community ESL Meeting†offered some snacks for parents coming  directly from their jobs. The metaphorical sweet-and-sour soup came later. The PPS delegation, led by Carla Randall, took a conciliatory attitude, but she did not find the message that some 80 parents wanted to hear. Randall addressed the unpopular original ESL redesign team, reporting that the “team has no more meetings scheduled.†In effect, the team no longer existed. Randall then displayed a poster listing six objectives for a new program. Her model included the goals of identifying ESL eligibility, effective ESL programs, instruction techniques, assessing progress, family involvement, and system integration. Parents of Hispanic, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, and Somali students rose to tell Randall that she had missed the point. ESL parents, they said, wanted to be included at the beginning of the redesign, not to have PPS making plans and then presenting them to parents for approval. Randall responded, saying, “You should tell us how you want to be involved.†She encouraged parents, who wanted to become active, to sign up. “I’m sure we have the same goals. The question is how we move forward and how to measure how well we are proceeding,†Randall added. Sheila Warren, founder of the Portland Parent Union, observed, “This sounds like the same old thing.†Warren suggested reshaping the whole program, starting tonight. Warren complained of the lack of parent inclusion in the decision making process. “If you want our support,†she said, “give us a seat at the table.†Joel Campos complained that ESL parents receive performance reports about an inch thick, all in English. Since this may be difficult for some parents to understand, he suggested that reports be written in the family’s primary language. Another parent suggested that ESL meetings be held in the neighborhoods, rather than one big city-wide session. The PPS line-up featured one new member. Angela Sandino now holds the title of interim director of the ESL program. Sandino holds the rare distinction of having taught in eight countries on four continents. PPS Superintendent Carole Smith, flying in from Denver, arrived late in the program. During the get-acquainted session before the meeting began, four young Vietnamese girls performed a colorful and intricate dance. Early in the program Randall called attention to “Hopes & Dreams†posters on the walls of the Madison cafeteria. She invited parents to jot down their ideas on sticky notes and hang them on the nearest poster. The morning after Marta Güembes, chair of the PPS Parent Advisory Committee, had a number of comments during a Thursday morning phone interview. “The meeting last night, to me, was a joke,†Güembes said. “They did not let the parents know about the program,†she added. “They already made their plan.†Güembes charged that at meetings parents are not allowed to have their own opinions. “The schools need to work with the parents,†Güembes said. “Without that, we won’t get any place.†She called the posters and sticky notes “an insult.†In Güembes’ view, Portland ESL teachers are not adequately trained. She suggested a move similar to a president’s cabinet between terms. The entire cabinet resigns, leaving the president to re-appoint those he wants. Under Güembes’ plan, only fully qualified teachers should be considered to teach ESL classes. Güembes asserted that teachers are not adequately supervised. She said that one teacher fell asleep during a class — and was not reprimanded. How is Oregon doing with ESL? Last December the communications office of the Oregon Department of Education issued a report on the state of ESL programs in the state. On balance, the results might be viewed as a glass half full. Of four targets, two met goals and a third came close. Unfortunately, the program’s key goal of making adequate yearly progress for English Language Learners (ELL) fell short. On the other hand, the percentage of all Oregon’s ELL students reaching proficiency and exiting the program is 15 percent. This was up from 10.8 percent in 2008-09 and 7.8 percent in 2007-08. The percentage of fifth year students reaching proficiency and exiting the program is 26.7 percent. This is up from 18.2 percent in 2008-09 and 16.3 percent in 2007-08. Some 49.5 percent of Oregon’s ELL students moved up by one level of English proficiency — a hair short of the target of 50 percent target. Depending upon one’s viewpoint, the goals may have been set too high or too low. The Department of Education’s report praised the results in a small district north of Salem. “Gervais School District stands out this year as a state leader having met all three federal objectives for ELL students for 2009-10. Fifty-two percent of Gervais School District ELL students moved up one proficiency level. The total number of ELLs gaining proficiency was above the statewide average at 19 percent and the percentage of five-year students gaining proficiency was well above the statewide average at 36 percent. The District also has the distinction of meeting Adequate Yearly Progress for their ELL students.†The report went on to state, “The District is methodical about student scheduling and service placement of students. All teachers district-wide are trained and mentored in research-based ELL instructional techniques. Regular classroom teachers understand the philosophy and goals of the English Language Development program to better understand the different proficiency levels of students. They work closely with (English Language Development) coaches and teachers to target and differentiate appropriate instruction for each student.â€


Photo Richard Jones, El Hispanic News Angela Sandino brings a world of experience to her job as interim director of ESL programs at Portland Public Schools. Sandino has taught in eight countries on four continents.