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New ESL director vows change

Van Truong tries to resolve issues with parents, district


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Atkinson Elementary School student Miguel Maya-Alvarez works with ESL teacher Colleen Pattiani during his ESL class time.  
There’s a white board in Van Truong’s office with a giant to-do list:

Organize the first-ever student leadership conference for English-as-a-second-language students.

Open a Portland Public Schools’ newcomer center, for immigrants to spend up to six months working on their English before moving to their assigned school.

Meet with parent groups, community groups, teacher groups and more.

The board isn’t big enough for all the work Truong needs to do as PPS’ new English-as-a-second-language director, the district’s latest attempt to save the embattled program.

As of 2010, PPS’ ESL program had been out of state and federal compliance for 13 of the past 17 years. The graduation rate for students was a paltry 39 percent, 28 points lower than the district’s average of 67 percent.

Just half of 4,000 ESL students who were in the program for five years tested proficient enough to leave the program.

And, in his 2010 review, auditor Richard Tracy pointed to serious problems with leadership, monitoring, accountability, collaboration and guidance to schools.

Truong knows all this. Before coming to the post — following a director who lasted less than a month on the job and another who sued the district and then was fired — Truong had been in PPS for all her adult life.

She came to Portland as a Vietnamese refugee, graduated from Madison High School, where she was enrolled in ESL, and got a job as receptionist for PPS’ ESL/bilingual program in 1983.

She moved up the ranks to secretary, paraprofessional and community agent. She raised four children who graduated from PPS. She taught high school ESL, art and French, and was a teacher on special assignment in the ESL department before becoming an administrator. She served as assistant principal of Binnsmead Middle School, vice principal of Franklin High School and principal of Mt. Tabor Middle School in 2006.

She spent five years at Mt. Tabor, leaving just after parents loudly protested her move to disband the school’s popular Cedar Lodge program without notice or discussion.

Truong was then promoted to central management, spending a year as assistant director of secondary curriculum and Instruction before being plucked for the ESL top job.

The appointment was made without any public process, according to Thach Nguyen, a board member of the Asian Pacific Network of Oregon and longtime ESL program advocate.

“We asked for a person who’s demonstrated success somewhere else,” says Nguyen, who has been involved in the hirings of former ESL directors. “PPS hasn’t been able to attract that person from anywhere.”

Nguyen says the ESL parent community began feeling shut out after their offers to help restructure the program fell by the wayside. So parents have disengaged during the past few years, and now look at the new director with cautious hope.

“It’s good to have someone from our community,” he says. “We know her background; we’ll do our best to support her. We hope she’ll embrace the community.”

Cultural barriers

Nguyen’s top concern is that there is still no ESL parent advisory committee, which the district is required to have in order to receive its federal Title III funds.

So far, Truong hasn’t gotten around to naming the parent group but has been meeting with communities of color and has more scheduled.

She’s held separate retreats with the district’s bilingual “community agents,” responsible for ground-level outreach, as well as with the principals, classroom teachers and ESL teachers.

“I said, ‘Name the challenges, what are your recommendations, what can I do to support you?’ “ she says.

Training programs are under way in “sheltered instruction” for classroom teachers, and ways to use the data available to move students along.

Truong has also noticed that ESL students are overrepresented in special education, representing 20 percent of that population compared to 10 percent of PPS as a whole. She believes they’re being referred for their speech differences, not for learning difficulties.

Truong says as ESL program leader, she can draw on her own experiences. When she came to the United States she was fluent in French and Vietnamese, a top student who could already do calculus. But at Madison she was given an assessment test for math that relied on a slightly different method than she had been taught, which resulted in her being placed on a track for sub-par math students.

Truong says low expectations and culturally insensitive assessments have long been a problem in Portland schools. But, she says, a lack of parental involvement, often stemming from cultural expectations, is also to blame for poor achievement among some Asian students.

Vietnamese parents, she says by way of example, are often loathe to come to teacher-parent meetings.

“We (Vietnamese) don’t define that as parent involvement,” Truong says. “We leave that to educators. We leave it up to the professionals and we don’t dare challenge the teachers or the district on what they’re doing with our kids.”

That, Truong says, must change. So must the message to parents about what teachers expect in terms of kids being ready to go to school and completing homework. But it won’t be easy. She says rather than calling Vietnamese parents in for conferences, teachers and administrators must reach out to them at community events or at churches.

“I vow not to be part of the problem,” she says. “I’m trying to turn the ESL model around.”