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The push to be proficient
The Oregonian
At Orlando Hernandez's home in Beaverton, "everything's Spanish," the 7-year-old says.

His parents speak Spanish. The TV speaks Spanish. He and his little sister speak Spanish.

At Barnes Elementary, there's a lot of Spanish, too. Half the students at his school come from Spanish-speaking homes, and most teachers are bilingual. For a week at a time, Orlando and his second-grade classmates learn their lessons in Spanish. The next week, lessons are in English.

After two years at Barnes, Orlando speaks English well, displaying a wide vocabulary, a grasp of English grammar and barely a trace of Mexican accent.

But writing English is much harder for him. When his teacher gives the class a writing assignment, Orlando soaks up the instructions in English, then does what many of his Spanish-speaking classmates do: writes every word of his essay in Spanish.

"I went to Kmart and fuy con mi familia," he wrote one recent morning. Then, for the first time, English came tumbling out onto his page: "We buy jampo (shampoo) and some clos and soks and food and some music . . "

His teacher notices. She silences the class and reads Orlando's journal entry aloud: "He did really well in English. Give him a big hand."

Orlando beams.

The yearning he feels to show mastery in a second language is shared in thousands of classrooms across Oregon, as 53,000 students whose families speak 80 different languages labor to learn academic English. That's nearly 10 times as many English-as-a-second-language students as 15 years ago. They now represent one in 10 Oregon schoolchildren.

For the schools and teachers charged with educating these children, the pressure has been turned way up this year.

That's a good thing, many parents and advocates say. Some educators facing the challenge on the front lines aren't so sure.

Around Oregon, immigrant parents increasingly are buying into the American dream of college for their children, educators report. But for a majority of their children, it remains just a dream.

Most are hobbled by their inability to speak and write English well enough to pass high school classes. Half of Oregon's students with limited English proficiency drop out of high school, state figures show. Fewer graduate with the skills to succeed in college or at high-paying jobs.

This month, Oregon officials are required for the first time to set second-language performance targets for schools and the state as a whole. And they set them high: Schools should move nearly all their second-language students from beginner to fully proficient in English in five years. Washington also wants schools to get the job done in five years.

Hitting the target would require most Oregon schools to do a far better job than they do now.

In each of the past three years, Oregon schools have designated about 2,000 of these students as fully proficient in English -- a fraction of the roughly 25,000 students who were getting help learning English five years earlier.

The statistics suggest that, on average, Oregon schools have their limited English proficient students on pace to become proficient in English in 12 to 13 years -- so slowly that a non-English-speaking student who enters Oregon schools after kindergarten probably will leave high school without ever mastering English.

Some Oregon educators say it's too much to expect them to do the job in five years. Research suggests that, even with strong programs, students learning English usually need five to seven years to master enough nuances to read and write academic English well, they say.

Gary Hargett, a Portland-based consultant who has helped states and districts step up their programs for English language learners, says five years is ambitious but attainable. "If Oregon could do it, it would be way ahead of what everybody's doing right now."

Some front-line educators are hopeful. After years of work to refine its programs for English language learners, Woodburn's Valor Middle School is hitting its stride, says Principal Bill Rhoades. "With the type of support in literacy that our students are getting this year, I think we are going to make tremendous gains."

Progress will now be reported Schools usually refer to their programs by one of three acronyms -- LEP, for limited English proficient; ESL, for English as a second language; or ELL, for English language learners.

Carmen West, newly in charge of English language learners and bilingual education for Oregon, says it's clear those programs must be ramped up or schools won't meet the performance targets.

Schools will get a carrot and a stick from the state, West says.

The carrot: free workshops with experts, detailed descriptions of what schools should teach English language learners at each stage of language development, a new test that's better at measuring students' academic English skills and other assistance.

The stick: Yearly reporting of how much progress English language learners make in each school and district -- statistics never before available in Oregon.

That could prompt schools to abandon strategies that don't work for many students, educators say. One of those, according to specialists at Beaverton's ESL Welcome Center, is the "sink or swim" approach that puts students in an all-English classroom environment in the hope they'll soak it up. That works to teach conversational English, but not the high-level speaking and writing skills needed to succeed in middle and high school, the Beaverton specialists say.

Modeling after successes To get better results, many Oregon schools will be expected to follow districts with the best track records.

In Oregon, nearly all those districts try to teach students reading, writing and some academic content in their first language before plunging them into non-stop lessons in English. It sounds counter-intuitive, but most research has found it true: To best teach students to read, speak and write English like natives, schools first should make sure they can read and write in their native language.

That's why Forest Grove, Woodburn, Beaverton and several other districts teach some students to read and write in Spanish for at least their first four years in school.

But West notes that only schools that have a critical mass of students who speak the same language can have a teacher with the credentials to offer first language literacy instruction.

Oregon hasn't been hit with voter-enacted laws against bilingual education such as those in California and Massachusetts that limit schools' ability to teach students in their native languages. The California law, passed five years ago, reduced the number of students taught in their native language from about 30 percent to about 10 percent. Both students who were taught in their native languages and those taught only in English did slightly better on achievement tests. So far, however, there is no evidence that more California students are gaining full proficiency in English.

In Oregon, schools are seeking strategies to help students who are partially proficient in English get the most out of regular classroom instruction while also teaching them English, West says.

One approach is called Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol, or SIOP. Beaverton has trained thousands of its teachers to use these techniques.

Michelle Harris is one of them.

She expects her seventh-graders to write with style, voice, variety and correct grammar and punctuation -- in narrative, persuasive and informative pieces.

To make that stick, she uses lots of pointing and gestures and a system of color-coding that visually links vocabulary and concepts for her students. To get good writing in their heads, she reads aloud while showing the text on the overhead, making it easier for English language learners to pick up vocabulary, pronunciation and phrasing of English.

"These strategies are good for every kid, not just for English language learners," Harris says.

Stuck at intermediate level West says the state is going to come through with more help soon, including detailed outlines of what to teach at each stage of proficiency.

"Typically, instruction for language development has not been structured. There was no curriculum," West says. "In some districts, teachers have to find their own materials. There is no clear scope and sequence for the development of English in a lot of the districts."

Beaverton is one of the few districts that closely tracks yearly progress in English proficiency. And, while Beaverton has some of the best-regarded ELL programs in Oregon, a third of its English language learners showed no measurable advancement from 2001 to 2002. Beginners surge ahead almost no matter what, the district found, but once students reach intermediate English proficiency, schools have a hard time moving them to advanced levels.

Twelve-year-old Ricky Lopez, a seventh-grader at Beaverton's Whitford Middle School, is among the students who have achieved advanced English skills but are not yet fully proficient.

Born in California to Mexican American parents, he speaks Spanish at home. But, after three years in Beaverton schools, he speaks English as well as some native speakers and spends all but one period in regular classes.

In Harris' English class, students worked in groups to put sentences in order and add transitions. Ricky was the only limited English proficient student in his group. The most confident girl in his quartet led them to put the sentences in the wrong order. Ricky helped steer his group to the correct answer.

"I feel good, because I know that I am getting really good at something," he said later. But, he quickly added, "my writing is kinda rocky still." For that reason, he is grateful that he still spends one period a day getting ESL support. He is in no hurry to be reclassified as proficient and lose that help.

He's focused on a more distant goal: college. He doesn't know much about any university, but he knows he wants to go:

"I think I would like to be a lawyer."

Betsy Hammond: 503-294-7623; betsyhammond@news.oregonian.com