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  • 1 Oct 2014

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Teacher slams ESL 'pullout' schedule

ESL kids skip art, P.E., 'enrichment' for language class


A Portland Public Schools teacher filed a federal complaint last month because of the way English-as-a-Second-Language services are being delivered at her school.

Emily Toll, a PPS teacher of 29 years, lodged a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union over the schedule for the ESL students at her school, Harrison Park K-8 School in Southeast Portland.

The schedule, drawn up by her principal, uses the “pullout” model of taking ESL students in kindergarten through fifth grade out of class for 35 minutes each day during their quarterly rotation of “enrichment” classes: art, P.E., computer lab and social skills with a counselor.

Students who aren’t native English speakers (12 of Toll’s 27 second-graders) miss out on those classes, which Toll believes are as important to the school’s “core curriculum” as reading, writing and math.

“The district has this big equity push,” she says. “We’ve got equity teams in every building; we’re doing equity training. To me, this is a huge equity issue. We’re putting these kids at an extreme disadvantage by missing these programs.”

Toll first raised the question after her principal unrolled the new schedule at the start of the school year. She asked questions and complained in staff meetings, to no avail, she says. So she fired off an angry email to Superintendent Carole Smith, other district leaders, including the new ESL director, school board members and media.

“This new regimen prompts several questions which could span fairness, equity, possible racism,” she wrote.

Toll believes ESL students are receiving a lower quality education than their non-ESL counterparts.

A PPS communications staffer assured Toll the issue would be brought to the attention of ESL director Van Truong, new to the post this school year. Toll has heard nothing since from PPS officials.

The issue appears to be stuck in a stalemate. Both the principal at Harrison Park and the newest district ESL director believe the current pullout schedule is what’s best for ESL students.

“I’ve tried to explain what the thinking is” to teachers with questions, Harrison Park Principal John Walden says. “I told them, ‘We’re going to do what’s best for kids.’ If what we’re doing meets that criteria, that’s what we have to do.”

About a third of Harrison Park’s students (250) qualify for ESL, making it the largest concentration of ESL students in the city.

The Oregon Department of Education has mandated that students are not pulled out during “core instruction” time, so that’s why ESL is taught during electives rather than reading, writing or math.

“We need to ensure they’re going to be successful in high school and move on to college,” Walden says. “The literacy and math, those are primary.”

Toll doesn’t dispute that core content is necessary. But she doesn’t teach core curriculum when half her class is gone to ESL. She works one-on-one with students, using the time to read books, practice handwriting and other language skills they learn in ESL. The same goes for other teachers in the building, she says: “We find things to fill up the time.”

Toll argues that computer literacy skills are key for any student, especially one who comes in with language as a barrier.

Walden argues that students have access to computers in the school library and their classroom. To allow for more physical activity in the day, he increased the length of lunch recess this year, because students had a total of only 30 minutes to eat and play last year. And for art, he says, “a strong elementary teacher infuses art into their class.”

He also says the school is using some of its Equity Fund dollars to train teachers in “sheltered instruction” — strategies to teach at various levels in one classroom.

The hope is to increase English language proficiency for all students, Walden says: “My goal is 95 percent of kids meeting or exceeding benchmarks. We’re a ways away.”