September 15, 2016

Uniting to Improve Oregon's English Language Learner Programs

by Jeanice Chieng
Policy Manager

On August 24th a group of 45+ parents and community advocates gathered at PCUN (United Farm Worker’s Union) in Woodburn, OR to discuss HB 3499 (English Language Learner reform law) that was passed in 2015. This summit comes right as the Oregon Department of Education works through the beginning stages of implementing HB 3499, having recently identified the state’s 40 lowest performing school districts in terms of ELL outcomes.

For as long as I can remember, APANO Founders and Board Members have been leading local advocacy efforts for the past 15+ years on improving outcomes for English Language Learners (ELL) in Portland Public Schools (PPS). However, the problem is not specific to PPS. In fact, Oregon statistics on ELL students has been poor and unacceptable for a long time, with ELL students graduating at 49% compared to non-ELL students at 75%. And, when you look at national statistic, they tell a similar story of ELL students falling behind their counterparts.

APANO organizers, Wanna Lei, Carol Chan, and Kathleen Jonathan, brought over a dozen parents from the Chinese community in Portland, and Marshallese community in Salem. What did they have to say about the summit and HB 3499?

  • “I felt comfortable asking questions when I didn’t understand. I knew (the parent meeting) was a safe place for our voices.”

  • “I learned more about the ELL program in school and I appreciated hearing about other parent experiences. I liked hearing about how one mom takes notes during each teacher, counselor, or principal meeting.”

  • “I did not know about the ELL funding problem before this, and that some school districts didn’t spend their ELL dollars on ELL students.”

  • “I am glad there is a law now to address the poor ELL system. More parents need to know about this, and learn about their rights as parents with kids in school.”

One particular issue we heard from several folks is that they did not know about the legal requirements of ELL services and spending within schools. Specifically, they were unaware that language interpretation and transportation is a basic civil right that should be provided by the school, NOT through the ELL budget. Overall, folks appreciated the ELL Summit for providing the space, opportunity to learn, and dialogue about root causes and affirmative steps districts could take.

More Background on ELL Advocacy and HB 3499

Too often when advocates asked the “why” questions regarding the disparity, they were met with excuses. For example, ELL students are low income, living in poverty, come from families of migrant workers, or have parents with little education, and etc. To advocates, it was extremely troubling to hear those types of statements that largely suggested ELL students can’t learn because they are poor and/or it was their parent’s fault. This act of blaming students and families rather than looking at the failing system was a big part of the problem.

When the ELL Advocates Coalition, in which APANO is a member, explored the issue we found a number of different problems with the system:

  • Not all school districts were not spending earmarked ELL state and federal dollars on ELL students.
  • The pull-out model, where ELL students get pulled out of their core and elective classes to sit in an ELL class, was still a widely accepted and popular practice, even though the evidence showed that the pull out model doesn’t work because students missed valuable instruction time.

Under HB 3499, Oregon Department of Education (ODE) identifies the lowest performing ELL programs and school districts in the state, supports them with technical assistance and best practices and monitors their progress for the next four years. If there is no improvement in ELL student outcomes, ODE takes over the school district's ELL funding. Additionally, because interpretation and translation is a civil right, the law created a new funding code for school districts to use specifically for interpretation and translation expenses, that do not fall under ELL program costs.