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Special class helps students overcome hidden barriers

Teacher and aide put intense focus on reading, writing
by: Christopher Onstott Julio Alvarez, a sixth grader at H.B. Lee Middle School, works on vocabulary one recent morning during a class for high-need kids. The students – in special education and learning English as a second language – currently read at a first- and second-grade level. Their teacher and educational assistant work for 90 minutes a day to boost their literacy skills, one flashcard at a time.

Students in Ellen Green's class were having a hard time focusing.

They had just returned from three days at Outdoor School, and the sun outside reminded them that summer break - for some, the end of middle school - was less than three weeks away.

Those were hardly the only challenges facing the 16 preteens in Green's first-period class at H.B. Lee Middle School in outer East Portland. The sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders face much deeper barriers, year-round and invisible to most.

Most of them, like 80 percent of their classmates, live in poverty. Many in Green's class are in special education, and nearly all are learning English as their second, third, fourth or even fifth language.

With dreams of a better life and public school education in the United States, they've come from Afghanistan, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and the Republic of Congo.

For at least 90 minutes a day, they focus intently on reading and writing. But they're starting at a first-grade level, copying the teacher's letters to spell words such as 'train,' 'trip,' 'true' and 'troll.'

'When we started the year, we had to focus on systematic writing for the writing assessment in February,' Green says. 'Then I realized I just had to pile on the words. I give them 20, 30 a day.'

Green says them aloud and has students copy them into their notebooks as she puts the words into context: 'Train, like 'choo choo,' taking a train ride to another place. Who's been on a train before? How about in another country?'

Half the children raise their hands.

'They're wonderful kids, eager to learn,' says Green, a reading specialist at Lee for the past six years, capping a total of 32 years in public education. 'We slowly, slowly get there.'

Teachers stretched

But she can't do it alone.

For as long as she's taught here, she's had the daily help of one other adult in the class - Vicki Dalpez, a part-time educational assistant who spent her 15 prior years in special education services.

It's Dalpez's job to lead some of the small-group lessons, because the students need as much one-on-one attention as they can get.

On a recent day she helped four students create their own alphabet books, while others worked independently at a row of computers and a third group made flashcards.

They painstakingly copied their words on to index cards, then waited for a teacher's help to clarify the definition so they could capture it on the card with a sentence or drawing.

'They deserve to be served,' Dalpez says. 'Our teachers are stretched already.'

With all of the outside burdens children bring to the classrooms - hunger, homelessness, absent parents or learning difficulties - 'it's not just the 3 R's anymore' that teachers have to tend to in the classroom,' Dalpez says. 'They are not prepared for high school. Then what happens? Some will want to go to college, have a place in society.'

Last week, Dalpez was one of 107 educational assistants in the Reynolds district to be pink-slipped to save the district $640,000 in a budget shortfall.

Just as class was ending on Thursday, Dalpez got a phone call from the district that brought happy tears to her eyes. 'I'm being called back,' she said.

At a May 12 budget meeting, district officials decided to restore the 16 full-time equivalent positions. They're increasing the special education budget by $900,000 after realizing that the budget was 'too low to meet the maintenance of effort,' according to budget documents.

For that, Dalpez and Green are grateful. They often keep in touch with the eighth-graders after they head off to high school. They have just three years in middle school to get their work done.

'There are gangs out there, recruiting from this age group; they can promise them everything,' says Dalpez, worriedly. 'But the kids that make it through this system are going to be amazing.'

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