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Despite growing interest in all things Russia, more students are needed to keep formerly popular classes afloat.

This story has been updated.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JONATHAN HOUSE - Russian Immersion teacher Olessia Bordioug leads her Kelly Elementary class through a Russian lesson.Tucked inside a squat brick building in one of Portland's low-income neighborhoods just might be the key to our national security problems.

At least, that's what the United States government believes as it granted about $45,000 to boost a unique program many don't even know exists in the Lents neighborhood.

It's not a secret. In fact, there's a concerted effort to get more people aware of this program, before it disappears.

Kelly Elementary School's Russian immersion program is one of only a handful in the country — the others being in Alaska, Ohio, Colorado, Maryland and just to the south in Oregon, Woodburn. Starting in kindergarten, students can acquire a near-native knowledge of Russian, taking subjects in the language all the way through college at Portland State University.

But gentrification has caused the formerly popular program to shrink. The Russian-language New Life Church near the school moved farther east, and with it, its tight-knit congregation. Kelly's Russian program was still in demand, but by last year, 68 percent of students lived outside of the service area.

Considering the overcrowding in Portland Public Schools, last summer — over the protests of hundreds of people — the district limited the number of new out-of-district transfers. That shrunk the immersion from two classes in each grade to a single class in incoming kindergarten.

Kelly parent Danika Stochosky wants more in-district parents to sign their kids up for the "invisible" program.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JONATHAN HOUSE - Russian Immersion student Rose Plont follows along with spoken English exercises at Kelly Elementary."We're working on getting more visible, but it's all these little pieces that need to get pushed around and pushed around again," Stochosky says of the volunteer effort.

Though Stochosky is of Slavic descent, her child is one of the few in the program who didn't know any Russian when she started. Most of the students have parents or grandparents who speak to them in Russian.

Stochosky says the benefits of bilingual instruction that cause parents to clamor to get into the Chinese immersion program in nearby Woodstock are just as valid for the less-popular Russian program.

"White people like Chinese because they think that's where the market is," Stochosky says. "But there's no room in the Chinese or Spanish programs. ...(With Russian,) you're getting those same benefits. All the brainwork is the same. You build the same muscles."

Benefits of bilingual instruction

PPS Dual Language Director Michael Bacon says that's true. The research shows the benefits of being bilingual include better problem-solving skills, more mental flexibility, better literacy and faster acquisition of other foreign languages.

For both English learners and native English speakers, "it's a win-win. Both sides win," Bacon says. "Both sides get the values of being bilingual and biliterate."

But the point of the district's dual language programs is not to give already-privileged students a leg up. They are aimed at narrowing the achievement gap for what are now called "emerging bilingual students" — those whose native language is not English.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JONATHAN HOUSE - Russian children's books in Natalya Kunda's Kelly Elementary class."Gentrification has certainly impacted (the ability of) some of our ... linguistic minority groups, including Russian, to live in our district," Bacon says.

Some feel that the decision to cut the Russian program was politically motivated, given the timing with President Donald Trump's election and suspicions of Russian meddling. But, while acknowledging that Russia has an image problem locally, Bacon refutes that.

"The rub has been because we had so many kids coming from out of the district," he said. "It was a tough decision."

Currently 11 percent — about 5,400 students — are in a language immersion program in Portland Public Schools. The district gives this instruction in five languages, with a sixth possibly on the way (see sidebar). Parents sign their kindergarteners up through a lottery system, which this year runs Feb. 7 through March 2. Kelly's Russian program has open spots, while the three Chinese and 10 Spanish programs turn away scores of kids every year.

Bacon says the cultural and linguistic opportunities provided by Portland's varied immigrant communities are an asset.

"Investing in those and really leveraging those for our community is extremely important," he says. "I would encourage families to really consider (bilingual education). We feel like this is a strength of our system and a strength of what we can provide to our community, our schools, and our world."

Yulia Brooks, a second-grade teacher at Kelly, wants PPS to keep up two strands of the Russian classes. Attrition means that only a handful of the program's first class of students — now in 10th grade at Franklin High School — are left.

Brooks worries her native language is undervalued in American culture.

"It is really special," Brooks says. "Russian language is a very rich language. It's classical language. Tolstoy. Dostoyevsky. Pushkin. Classical music. It's a very, very beautiful language. It brings a lot of culture with it."

Brooks says she would like to see more native English speakers in her classroom, in part, "to understand Russia better. With language, you have the knowledge of that country as well."

That understanding, she says, "will hopefully bring our countries closer together."

Look for information on signing up for PPS language programs, including three dates this week on Kindergarten Connect sessions, here: www.pps.net/Page/863

PPS to test interest in Arabic

Portland Public Schools is looking to add Arabic to its list of dual-language programs that currently include Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Russian and, newly, Vietnamese.

PPS Director of Dual Language Programs Michael Bacon says the new program was announced last week on the district website to test interest among PPS students.

Bacon says the new program could serve what the district sees as an emerging need in the local immigrant community.

There are 22 countries where Arabic is an official language, according to the BBC.

"There are, unfortunately, some ideas that all Arabic speakers are Muslim," Bacon says, noting that many Arabic-speaking diaspora are Christian or other religious affiliations. "Our goal is to have a secular and very inclusive program with different nationalities and dialects."

Despite a push from Portland's large Somali community, there will not soon be a Somali immersion program due to the difficulty of finding qualified staff and curriculum, Bacon says. But as nearly all Somalis are Muslim, and therefore familiar with Arabic as a liturgical language, this new program could serve them as well.

UPDATE (1/23/18): This story was corrected to allow that a limited number of out-of-district transfers are still admitted into the Russian program.


Shasta Kearns Moore
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