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Activists worry ESL classes hinder Asians

Despite progress, many say students don't get prep courses


When local Asian and Pacific Islander activists list ways in which institutional racism is handicapping their communities, often Portland area schools get first billing.

The schools, they say, have not made an effort to help Asian immigrant children learn English and progress into mainstream classes.

A recent study of Portland-area Asians by Portland State University professor Ann Curry-Stevens reported that only two of 32 local Asian ethnicities (Japanese and Korean) were meeting the language standards achieved by white students. One in five Nepali speakers, one in three Burmese speakers and none of the students among Portland’s native Karen speakers are meeting English language benchmarks.

Math scores tell a slightly different story. Seven of 10 white students are meeting state math benchmarks, but Khmer, Korean, Mandarin, Thai, Vietnamese and Gujarati speakers are all scoring higher than whites overall. Still, 26 Asian minorities are below whites in math skills.

Part of the problem, school officials say, is the large number of individual languages and dialects among Asian immigrants. But Joseph Santos-Lyons, Development and Policy Director for the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, says the problem goes deeper and would not be tolerated if other other, higher profile minorities were involved.

“In many other communities that would raise such an alarm and institutions would seek to address those disparities,” Santos-Lyons says. “This is really a snapshot of the systemic problems that Asian Pacific Islanders consistently express with our public institutions.”

Thach Nguyen, a longtime Vietnamese activist, says one of the problems is that Portland Public Schools has not separated its data by ethnicity. Overall, the district’s graduation rate for Asians is about 73 percent, higher than the average for all students or even white students. But the high overall Asian graduation rate masks dismal rates for some Asians ethnicities, including Portland’s Vietnamese.

In recent years, Nguyen has helped file a series of successful federal civil rights complaints claiming that inadequate PPS programs for students still learning English constitute discrimination. He says the problem isn’t simply that Asian students aren’t being brought up to speed quickly enough in English. Often, Nguyen says, the wrong Asian kids have been placed in classes for non-English speakers because the system’s assessment program is inadequate.

According to Nguyen, many Asian students who speak adequate English have been guided into ESL classes and languished there, never gaining access to the courses they need to attend college. That, he says, affects their incomes for the rest of their lives, and may be a factor behind data showing Portland’s Asians are overall faring less well than Asians in other cities.

“I give them the benefit of the doubt, that they don’t know what they’re doing,” Nguyen says of PPS.