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Forest Groves Perla Rodriguez, a rising star among Latino administrators, speaks students dual languages

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Second-grade teacher Wendy Seitz leads her Echo Shaw students in a writing exercise using apples. Now in her tenth year as a teacher, Seitz, who speaks English, co-teaches with Spanish-speaking Evelia Vega in a Two Way Immersion classroom.In the last three months, Perla Rodriguez has been inside a lot of airports.

Since August, the principal of Echo Shaw Elementary School in Cornelius has flown to Illinois, Iowa and Florida to talk shop about bilingual education, assessment strategies and cultural and racial equity.

Next month, she'll wing her way to Washington, D.C., and looks forward to whirlwind trips to San Francisco, Los Angeles and Atlanta after the New Year to discuss similar issues.

"I'm where I'm supposed to be," the dark-haired eastern Oregon native said early this month. "This is the work I was born to do."

Rodriguez, 40, is a rising star among Latino public school leaders — and for good reason. She's one of only 17 administrators nationwide selected to participate in a three-year-long Superintendent Leadership Academy sponsored by the Massachusetts-based Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS).

The goal of the project, funded by a $792,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, is to increase the number of Latino superintendents in "select Hispanic-serving school districts by developing their professional and leadership skills," according to an entry on the website glasspockets.org, which showcases the transparency and accountability practices of the largest U.S. foundations.

Tailor made

Since the Forest Grove School District's overall enrollment is about 52 percent Hispanic, the project seems tailor-made for the community — and for Rodriguez. Superintendent Yvonne Curtis, herself a Latina born in New Mexico and reared in San Diego, called Rodriguez "a strong instructional leader" and said she values Rodriguez's expertise "in the area of Spanish and English dual language."

ALAS' new executive director, Veronica Rivera, said the selection process for the leadership academy was rigorous and that Rodriguez demonstrated that "her experiences growing up give her a unique perspective in reaching Latino students and their families." The only Forest Grove principal with a doctoral degree (in educational leadership from George Fox University), Rodriguez appears poised to advance to a superintendent slot sometime in the not-too-distant future. She'd be in rare company: across the country only 1 of every 25 public school superintendents are Latino, even though 1 in 5 students is Hispanic and that number is growing each year.

For now, though, Rodriguez, who's spent 15 years in the Forest Grove district, isn't focused on making that leap.

"I won't rule it out," she said. "What I know from everyone who's made that transition is that when it's time, you know it … you feel it.

"I definitely have not felt that movement in my life yet."

Dual language education is where Rodriguez has found her calling. She's the daughter of Mexican immigrant parents who settled in Ontario, Ore., and encouraged her and her brother, Ramon Rodriguez Jr. — a police and school resource officer in his hometown — to "engage fully in U.S. culture" while speaking Spanish at home.

In her 20s, Perla, whose mother was supervisor of a migrant Head Start program, was drawn to a career in social work.

While enrolled in her undergrad program at Boise State University, however, she recognized that a gravitational pull toward social services was, for her, twinned with a predisposition for bilingual education.

"The social services side was the mending piece for people, but my professors showed me bilingual ed was the work of equity," she said.

With that concept firmly set in her mind, Rodriguez never looked back. This year she's serving as administrative liaison for the district's Spanish literacy efforts and directs its Two Way Immersion program for English language learners.

TWI (or "twee" as it's commonly known) has become her favorite acronym of all. It's a concept that invites students to learn in a dual language format, spending half the day speaking Spanish and the other half speaking English.

"My background is in bilingual ed, and I'm loving it," Rodriguez said, adding that her appointment to the ALAS academy is one more step toward a possible future in school district leadership.

"It's a really cool thing. I'm getting to meet a lot of people," said Rodriguez, who applied to the program last summer at the encouragement of her peers.

Tom McCall Upper Elementary School Assistant Principal Rogelio Martinez, who was Rodriguez's predecessor at Echo Shaw, is one of her biggest fans.

"She is a leader in our community and her hard work is now allowing her to become a leader nationally," Martinez said. "We are very lucky to have her in the Forest Grove School District."

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - At Echo Shaw Elementary School in Forest Grove, Principal Perla Rodriguez leads an overwhelmingly Latino student body that learns in almost exclusively dual language classrooms. She recently was appointed to a national leadership academy focused on helping to develop a new generation of Latino superintendents.Bilingual lessons

In 2011-12 Rodriguez was in her ninth and final year as a well-loved principal at Cornelius Elementary, where dual language instruction was common. TWI classes are taught at every grade level there, including kindergarten.

But under her leadership, and that of Martinez before her, Echo Shaw has emerged as the most TWI-saturated school in western Washington County. With practically every class receiving daily lessons in both English and Spanish, with the exception of one English-only third- and fourth-grade blend, Rodriguez's new school is a bilingual anomaly.

Enrollment declines at Echo Shaw last year occurred mainly among the English-speaking population, Rodriguez pointed out, so even though a couple teaching positions were cut, the school's dual language focus remained firmly entrenched.

"Students in the TWI program are receiving a unique education that's preparing them for a bilingual, bi-literate, bicultural future," said Martinez.

No other school district, from Banks to Beaverton, operates as high a percentage of TWI-taught classrooms.

"We've been telling kindergarten parents that we're a TWI school," Rodriguez noted, adding that of the 65 moms and dads who came to register their incoming kindergarteners for classes over the summer, only four did not want TWI. Those students are being bused to other schools.

"What we're doing is being responsive to what our families want," said Rodriguez. "It's not a phenomenon that's unique to Echo Shaw. But, as has always been the case, the two-way program is the one that fills up first in our school."

The 322-student Echo Shaw campus, whose population is 85 percent Latino, has become a magnet school for TWI education in town, with dozens of parents open-enrolling their children there. If you ask Rodriguez, she'll tell you that's a very good thing.

Historically, she said, "TWI programs haven't always been done well, and then they get a bad rap. But the research shows that the best way for students to learn English is with the strong use of their first language as they enter school."

In Forest Grove, that language is almost exclusively Spanish. Leonard Terrible, English Language Learners coordinator for the district, has set a goal for those students to gain academic proficiency in English within five years.

That not-so-arbitrary finish line has trickled down to the thinking of dual language teachers district-wide.

Veteran Echo Shaw teacher Wendy Seitz, who teaches the English portion of two second-grade TWI classes along with Spanish-speaking counterpart Evelia Vega, is sold on the program's merits.

"I have seen students gain a greater respect for each other as they work to learn a new language," said Seitz, now in her tenth year as an instructor. "Students who are 'expert' in Spanish can help the native English speakers as they learn Spanish, and students who are 'expert' in English can help the native Spanish speakers as they learn English."

Besides that, Seitz said, "many studies show students in TWI programs do very well academically and can outperform their monolingual counterparts."

Rodriguez also wholeheartedly endorses the dual language model to reach that objective.

"It's considered settled science that learning a language is basically the acquisition of a certain skill set," she said. "When kids go to school in the earliest grades and they're hearing a language they don't understand, it sets them back. We might as well teach them in Cantonese."

At the same time, Rodriguez concedes there are people who still think bilingual education is counterintuitive.

"Nobody here considers English a luxury," she said of her colleagues in Forest Grove. "We know it's a necessity, and critical to learning all the academic subjects — reading, writing, math, science."

Still, she and others recognize dual language programs as a political football that has been kicked downfield for way too many years, as some critics argue that public school lessons should be taught only in English. Even though the last decade has produced a huge demographic shift in the U.S. toward ever-higher numbers of Hispanic citizens, Oregon held its first statewide Spanish spelling bee just last year.

"I don't know any two-way teachers who aren't aware of the politics of this," noted Rodriguez.

Source of pride

Benefits and challenges abound, however, for native Spanish speakers and native English speakers alike, according to Forest Grove parents who've taken advantage of TWI.

Gini Petersen's children — Ellie, a former Echo Shaw student and now an eighth-grader at Neil Armstrong Middle School, and Ben, a fourth-grader at Echo Shaw — have blossomed in the TWI program.

"Learning Spanish has become a source of pride for them and a great motivator as well," said Petersen, the development director for Adelante Mujeres, a local non-profit. "It's hard to put into words how significant having your child in a multicultural school is."

A side benefit to her kids learning a second language has been their immersion into a culture different from their own in an all-Spanish setting, Peterson noted. "It was a good experience for them to learn what it is like to be outside their comfort zone," she said. "It gives them compassion and understanding for others … and the confidence to know how to handle themselves in those situations in the future."

Parent Monica Gorman, who enrolled her daughter Clare in the dual language programs at Fern Hill Elementary and, later, Cornelius Elementary, gave the experience mixed reviews.

In first-grade at Fern Hill, Gorman said, "the amount of homework was way too intense" and the school was very focused on (preparation) for testing," so she and her husband, Willie Collins, pulled Clare out a month into second-grade.

After that she took TWI classes at Cornelius for two years, where "teachers and staff were focused on creative projects and building community among all the students," her mother noted. Clare "loved learning in both languages," but the social scene took a toll.

"She was always one of a handful of non-Latino students," Gorman observed, and was sometimes left "feeling like she wasn't a true member of the social groups there."

When it came time to move ahead to fifth-grade, Clare's parents broke with the dual language program and enrolled her at the Forest Grove Community School, a public charter school with no bilingual strand.

"Forest Grove had sold the program as integrating Latino and Anglo students, but it didn't turn out that way at all," said Gorman. "Kids like Clare, who spoke English at home, were rare. We loved the idea and saw it as an amazing opportunity, but became quite disillusioned."

Petersen, while happier with her kids' experience, is disappointed that immersion learning in Forest Grove ends after pupils leave Tom McCall and enter Neil Armstrong Middle School.

"Not only is there no bilingual program at NAMS, but there is not even an appropriate Spanish class for these kids," she said. "It's a shame that there are kids who have been working so hard to become bi-literate all the way through sixth-grade and then there is absolutely nothing in the curriculum offered for (them)."

Rodriguez shares that goal of offering bilingual education for students across all age and demographic lines.

"What a gift we're able to give these students," she said. "The ability to communicate in multiple languages is just such an advantage in today's world and workplace.

"It used to be the exception to find a job applicant who spoke a second language. Now it's practically a requirement in many fields."


Latino leaders

Dr. Perla Rodriguez, principal of Echo Shaw Elementary School, is one of 17 administrators nationwide selected to participate in a Superintendent Leadership Academy hosted by the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS) between 2012 and 2015. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation provided ALAS with a $792,000 grant for the project, designed to increase the number of Latino superintendents in Hispanic-serving school districts throughout the United States.

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