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Now youre speaking my language

The Tigard-Tualatin School District is seeing the advantages of hiring teachers who are bi-lingual and bi-cultural
by: Jennifer Clampet, A BRIDGE BETWEEN CULTURES — Metzger Elementary ELL teacher Lily Watkins calls on her students to actively participate in her Spanish native literacy class.

Lily Watkins, an ELL teacher at Metzger Elementary School, was trying to help her native literacy students understand the meaning of the word 'reutilize.' After a brief explanation, one student shot a hand into the air, Watkins recalled.

As an example, the student said that her father used old shirts to clean the car. But in the sentence conveyed in Spanish, the student simply said her father used 'rags' or 'trapos' to clean the car.

But Watkins, who grew up in Nicaragua, said she instantly pictured her own father using old shirts to wipe down a family car. Watkins and her student shared the same image even though the student's phrasing hadn't been exact.

'I know what these kids are talking about.' Watkins said. 'I have that same image in my head, and (because of that) it validates what these kids are saying, and often these kids don't have validation.'

In a brief presentation given to the Tigard-Tualatin School Board in March, district ELL (English Language Learners) officials noted that one of the most important things in an ELL program is hiring teachers that students can relate to.

'For students to see their role models as coming from where they were is important,' said Johanna Cena, with the district's ELL department. '(Students) start to see (goals in life) as attainable.'

At Metzger, Watkins teaches in a tiny room. The walls are covered with flash cards displaying Spanish words and phrases, and seven chairs are pushed in around a single table. Watkins admits that she always feels little eyes watching her.

'I must always demonstrate how high they (the students) can go, and they can certainly go higher than a teacher,' Watkins said.

Watkins moved to the United States from Nicaragua when she was 17. Her American father wanted her to get a college education at an American university, but it was the performing arts bug that initially swept Watkins into the American culture.

She moved to New York where she made a living as a Hispanic actress. Years later, Watkins and her husband and newborn daughter moved to Portland.

Watkins is a graduate of Portland State University's bi-lingual teacher's program. This is her first year working in the district.

Last year, 20 of the district's new hires were bi-lingual teachers, said Cena.

'All school districts are facing (the need for bi-lingual teachers), and they want to find teachers that are bi-lingual and bi-cultural,' Cena said.

Hispanic students make up the bulk of English language learners in the Tigard-Tualatin School District. The district is continuing to see growth in the number of ELL students at several of its elementary schools - including Bridgeport, Deer Creek, Durham and Metzger.

But also in elementary schools, assessment test scoring has shown that the district's ELL program is starting to have at least some effect. In 2003, the number of ELL third-graders who met or exceeded state benchmarks was 56 percent. Last year, the number that met or exceeded benchmark increased to 81 percent. The same happened with ELL fifth-graders - in 2003 44 percent met or exceeded in reading benchmarks, and last year 75 percent met or exceeded.

Unfortunately, assessment scores in secondary schools are still low, and the drop out rate is high for ELL students, specifically Hispanics, in the district.

But with cultural ties between teachers and students, Watkins, Cena and other ELL teachers believe that strong relationships can be built that can ultimately push ELL students to want to succeed.

'Motivation plays a huge role,' said Carmenza Sarvay, an ELL teacher at Tualatin Elementary who learned to speak English as a child in Columbia. 'You have to show (students) what's there for them if they learn the language well. (The future) is one of the biggest things to get them motivated.'

Reaching out to students and encouraging them to retain their native languages and cultures are what motivates both Watkins and Sarvay in their everyday lessons.

And despite her time in the performing arts, Watkins said she believes she always wanted to be a teacher.

When she was young, Watkins recalled cleaning out her Nicaraguan grandmother's chicken coop. She set up little desks and chairs in the coop. She'd then gather children in her neighborhood so that she could teach them everything she had learned that day at the American-Nicaraguan school.

'I'm a bridge,' Watkins said. 'Basically what I see myself as is a bridge between the two languages and the two cultures.'