State: Fix Portland's English language program

PORTLAND — Portland's school district still isn't meeting federal standards for students learning English, says the Oregon Department of Education, which is continuing to withhold some federal funding.

In a letter to Portland Public Schools last month, state officials said the district had fixed only some of the problems listed in a 2009 audit, and that new findings reported some students were leaving the English Language Learner program without evidence they had learned the language.

Diana Fernandez, director of Portland's English as a Second Language department, told The Oregonian that the district has been working on the problems for a year, including going through the schedule of each ELL student and training about 130 staff on more effective teaching strategies.

But she said not everything has gone smoothly.

"Are there issues and do we need to change the way we're serving kids? Yes," Fernandez said. "But what the state found this last time wasn't something that was happening in all of our schools. It's a few schools here and there."

More than a year ago, the Education Department said the district wasn't adequately serving students learning English. Among the problems were that students weren't getting the minimum 30 minutes a day of English language instruction and some weren't able to take core classes. The state says the instruction time issue has been resolved, but the problem with core classes remains.

In September, the state told the district that it planned to withhold the federal money — about $600,000 — until the changes were made.

Marta Guembes, chairwoman of the district's English as Second Language department's parent advisory council, said the district should consider redesigning the department.

"They're just using bandages on each little thing that comes up," said Guembes, who has filed two complaints to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. "Maybe it would be a good idea to look at everything and start with a new structure and get rid of people not doing their work."

Xavier Botana, the district's chief academic officer, said he believes the district will be in compliance by March 1. But he said a lot must be done to do to improve education for ELL students.

"We have some kids in classes that they don't understand and can't make sense of," he said. "Getting in compliance, it will be a step in the right direction. But are we giving kids a meaningful opportunity to learn English? That's questionable."

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