ESL program proves successful, less disruptive to classes

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD -  Minter Bridge teacher Lindsay Garcia discusses which books her third grade dual immersion class will be purchasing with the prize money they won in a reading contest. Just two years ago, most English-as-a-Second-Language students in Hillsboro were getting pulled out of class once a day to focus on their English skills, as is done in Portland Public Schools and other districts.

There were just a few problems with that, says Travis Reinert, executive director of the district’s Teaching, Learning & Bilingual Programs (formerly ESL).

Under that “pull-out” model, “(students’) language development is disconnected from their content learning,” he says.

Also, some students who spoke another language at home didn’t qualify for ESL because they tested too high. And teachers noticed that all students — not just those learning English — needed to improve their language fluency throughout the day.

So last year, the Hillsboro district underwent a major cultural shift away from ESL and towards building-wide language models, letting principals choose a framework that that best fit their building.

Funding was redirected toward teacher training that used to be just given to ESL specialists; the goal is for all teachers to be trained.

The result: a system that allows schools to monitor their progress, based on a set rubric.

Teachers have started training in what’s called “sheltered instruction” — techniques to enable them to meet the various ability levels in the classroom. And students get to learn English throughout the day, in a way that’s connected with their studies.

“It’s just a more focused and strategic way to invest professional development dollars and people in the right work,” Reinert says. “Everyone in this district is focused on closing the achievement gap. We’re all monitoring the progress.”

Six Hillsboro elementary schools, plus South Meadows Middle School and Hillsboro High School, now offer dual language programs (also referred to as two-way immersion).

Other Hillsboro schools use a combination of other strategies that integrate and “scaffold” language throughout the curriculum.

One that’s especially embraced the language focus — even before the district-wide switch — is Mintor Bridge Elementary, 1750 S.E. Jacqueline Drive.

Six years ago, the school adopted a dual language program that has teachers instruct in Spanish for half the day and English the other half. The program was so popular at its startup that there was a waiting list. It’s since expanded schoolwide, growing by one grade level each year.

Of the 20 to 25 students who start as English language learners in kindergarten, there are just a couple still in the program, Principal Mary Beck-Mendez says: “The goal is that they’re all proficient by the time they leave.”

As a former ESL teacher, Beck-Mendez is a big believer in the new model.

“The research really shows it’s having that support of their native language that helps them learn the second language faster,” she says. by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Jose Barrazas immersion class take part in math lessons in spanish.

Language of power

Teaching all students language, rather than separating some out, “is an equity issue, I think,” Beck-Mendez says. “It’s also harder for them to feel included in the community of the classroom when they’re being pulled out.”

Critics might charge that giving native Spanish-speakers the chance to speak English for half the day would slow their acquisition of English, Beck-Mendez admits.

But she’s found that to be a complete myth: “The issue we usually have is it’s hard to maintain the Spanish for native Spanish speakers, because they’re surrounded by English,” she says. “They tend to start speaking English and preferring it, because that is the language of power in our country.”

Besides dual immersion, another practice at Mintor Bridge is the school-wide language focus, which began five years ago.

That means that native English speakers get lessons tailored to their ability level throughout the day. It might be simple or complex sentence structures, reading and writing for fluency at beginning or advanced levels.

Those students who speak other languages are engaged in the same language lessons as their peers.

Mintor Bridge’s students are 40 percent Hispanic, 40 percent white and 20 percent other ethnicities, including Asian, Russian, Somali and others.

About a quarter qualify for ESL services, receiving extra federal funding for those supports.

Especially with the state’s new common core standards for each subject, Beck-Mendez says the goal for students is “not just to understand the material, but be able to explain it.”

In a math lesson, for example, students are asked to explain the math problem; the same goes for other subjects.

“You have to use language in everything you do,” Beck-Mendez says. “The better your language, the more complete thoughts you have.”

So far, so good. In the past three years, the school’s writing scores jumped 20 percent (for fourth graders, the only grade tested).

Behavior has also improved. In the past five years, behavior referrals have dropped by half, something Beck-Mendez directly attributes to two factors: communication and inclusivity.

“The kids are learning how to carry on conversations that would solve problems,” she says. “And we’re not segregating kids. We’re learning two languages; there’s that multicultural perspective so everyone is valued.”

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