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Schools doom some ELL students to failure

My View • A one-size-fits-all approach by Portland district does not work
by: L.E. BASKOW, Volunteer tutor Steve Levy has worked with Cleveland High School student Salma Sheikh on her English in the three years she has been in the United States. High school students have a tough time catching up, Levy and other educators say, especially if they are mainstreamed in classes for which they are ill-prepared.

Jennifer Anderson's report on the difficulties pre-literate and newly arrived immigrant students are having in Portland Public Schools is well-founded (Left behind?, Nov. 12). In order to be in compliance with a state audit of its English Language Learner (ELL) program, PPS has interpreted the audit in the narrowest possible way. It insists these students be mainstreamed in classes for which they are ill-prepared.

Imagine you are 15 and arrived in China three months ago. You enter a Chinese public high school, and after your CSL class you go to biology, then algebra, then maybe health, all taught in Chinese. The textbook is in Chinese. Chinese authorities insist you have to be on a schedule to graduate with your age group, but someone will help you a little bit - maybe.

Now imagine you're unable to read or write in your own language and have never even learned to add or subtract. Maybe you've been in China a few years and can now read at a third grade level. Or imagine you're a student with four years of lifetime schooling and you're required to read and discuss the Chinese translations of 'War of the Worlds' and 'The Lost Horizon' in senior Chinese, where there are 40 other native Chinese students. But the teacher has had training in 'sheltering techniques' to deal with this problem.

This is what is happening here in Portland, in English. Surprise! Many students are failing miserably.

There is nothing in the audit that says ELL students need to be taking all mainstream classes in addition to their one ELL class. There is nothing that says they must be denied study halls, where they can get tutoring and do homework. (Is there another group of students besides ELL actively prohibited from taking study halls?) There is nothing that says ELL students can't have content classes taught at the appropriate level so that they can have an opportunity to not learn business procedures, economics, geometry and physics; they are denied the opportunity to learn English.

The argument has been made that immersion in a language is a superior way of learning. True enough, as far as it goes. But immersion in classes well beyond a student's ability to comprehend the content does little to help that student learn English, let alone the content. Begin with immersion in ELL classes and appropriately designed content classes.

This year PPS instituted an 'Accelerated Learning Academy' at Madison High School to address the difficulties associated with being pre-literate. Unfortunately, only seven people districtwide qualified for this program due to the very narrowly written criteria for admittance. Many more could benefit.

Students can stay in school until they're 21. An approach is needed that best suits the individual. Those who have had little or no education prior to their arrival in America can best be served by spending as many years in school here as they possibly can. For some, that could then amount to five years - total.

The one-size-fits-all approach by Portland Public Schools is a failure. School authorities need to sit down with state auditors, look again at this problem and figure out how to best address the letter and spirit of the audit without denying immigrant students an adequate education.

It can be done.

Steve Levy has been a volunteer ELL tutor at Cleveland High School for the past five years. He lives in Southwest Portland.