The Portland International Scholars Academy uses an intensive focus on English language development and acculturation to build students' academic skills and self esteem before transitioning to their neighborhood school. This research-based model has proven effective in increasing student success in Seattle, New York and Houston.
Saleh Abdonlaye, a 16-year-old who attended Roosevelt last year and started this fall at the academy, told The Oregonian that he often struggled with keeping up with native English speakers. "I think I like this better because everyone is the same," he said and later added, "I want to be here to learn more and get a good education."
Peer support can build confidence
Van Truong, director of the ESL program, said that for some students, having the chance to be surrounded by peers with a similar experience can build the confidence students need to succeed. Truong came to the U.S. as a child in the 1970s from Vietnam and started out in the ESL program, rising to become a teacher, then a principal, then a district curriculum leader before taking over the ESL department last year.
"For students learning English, the academy is another school option just like charter and focus schools are additional options for our majority student population," Truong said.
In addition to the academy, PPS has launched an International Youth Advisory Committee of students that meets monthly with the director of the English as a Second Language program to give feedback on better serving students.
A second group of students, the International Youth Leadership Council, includes a representative from each high school. This group of students is charged with building leadership skills and increasing their school leadership roles and abilities to advocate for their education.
Report details district's shortcomings
Truong said that definitive action to improve outcomes for English language learners is necessary. A Sept. 5 state report showed how the district has persistently fallen short in meeting federal targets for progress in teaching English to non-English speaking students.
The Annual Measurable Achievement Objectives describe the progress Oregon schools are making in teaching the state’s 56,800 emerging bilingual students as measured against federal targets.
Nearly 4,000 students are in the English as a Second Language program in Portland Public Schools, roughly 8 percent of the overall student population. A lower percentage of students met the major targets this year compared to last year even as the targets increased. PPS students rate at or below the state average.
A range of efforts to improve
In addition to the academy and the student groups, PPS is pursuing changes in instruction and assessment of English language learners and looking at ways to expand parent involvement in schools.
Another key initiative is expanding language immersion opportunities for students to learn bilingually. The approach serves English language learners who can continue to master academic skills in their native language while also learning English, as well as native English speakers who can immerse in another culture and language alongside their non-native English speaking peers.
“As a district, we recognize multilingualism as an asset for college readiness and to enable students to compete in a global economy,” Truong said. “We look forward to the ways that all of our students can come together to learn from each other and prepare together for college and career success."
Superintendent Carole Smith visited with the International Youth Leadership Council at the student group's first meeting in August.
"I'm excited that you will be a leadership force in our district this year," Smith told the students. "Thank you for stepping up and changing how we are working with our students."
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