Education | Family | NW Life | News | Class Of 2025

English At School, Spanish At Home

OPB | May 31, 2014 midnight | Updated: June 2, 2014 2:24 p.m.

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Ashley smiles at a compliment from her teacher Karen McDonald.

Ashley smiles at a compliment from her teacher Karen McDonald.

Michael Clapp / OPB

The state of Oregon has set an ambitious goal to graduate 100 percent of high school students by the year 2025. OPB is following more than two dozen six and seven-year-olds who are in the class of 2025. For the next twelve years, OPB aims to follow these students,  in school and at home. These are some of their stories from first grade.

When seven-year-old Octavio gets out of his first-grade classroom at Earl Boyles Elementary School, his mother is often waiting to walk him home, just across the street.

Once they’re home, Azucena Vazquez-Melchor —a stay-at-home mom who is very involved in school activities —will watch as her son does his homework or reads his library books.

Octavio Reads The Elephant And Piggy Series

“Piggy — what about me? Who will I skip with?” Octavio reads carefully from a Mo Willems classic about two friends, Elephant and Piggy. His mother speaks Spanish, but not English, so she doesn’t always understand Octavio’s English assignments, but his parents help him as much as they can, and always make sure that there are books in their home.

Just next door, his six-year-old cousin Ashley is also hard at work, feet dangling over the floor from her chair at the kitchen table. Their parents all immigrated to Oregon from Mexico, and the families speak Spanish at home, but the kids learn English at school.

Ashley, who has a shy, gap-toothed smile, places a Spanish language library book in front of her, chosen so that her mother could read to her.

Ashley’s mom, Rosalva Melchor, has been working two jobs, but recently quit one of them, in order to be able to spend more time with her children. She also wants to go with her cousin to more meetings of Padres Unidos, the school’s parent group.

It’s a big change for Ashley, whose older brothers have been watching her after school all year — now, her mom can read with her, or take her to the park to play.

Experts say that learning to speak and read in two languages, the way that Ashley and Octavio are learning to do, is an increasingly valuable skill.

Experts say that learning to speak and read in two languages, is an increasingly valuable skill. But Earl Boyles doesn’t offer a language immersion option. That means that Ashley and Octavio have to keep up with their classmates in a language they can’t speak at home with their family.

That can take a toll. Statistically, English Language Learners (ELL) face a tough road to high school graduation. Just under half of Oregon’s ELL students graduated on time last year. But some say that dual language ability should be encouraged.

“Children who are proficient in more than one language — that’s a gift and a skill, and it shouldn’t be only about English,” said Audrey Lucero, a language professor at the University of Oregon.

Ashley and Octavio are some of the quieter kids in first grade at Earl Boyles. Octavio’s mother, Azucena Vazquez-Melchor, says that Octavio’s teacher tells her he doesn’t often speak up in class.

“He knows how to respond, he knows the answers, but he doesn’t want to volunteer,” says Vazquez-Melchor, speaking through an interpreter.

Click for larger image

Click for larger image

Sloan Chambers

At Earl Boyles, there are twenty languages spoken at home among students. Even the school’s official parent group conducts its meetings in Spanish with a English translator on site. Octavio and Ashley switch between English and Spanish based on the setting — in class, it’s English. In the park, playing soccer or chasing around with friends, it’s Spanish.

Schools Grapple With The Language Gap

For school administrators, the gap between home and school seems wide for kids who are learning English as a second language.

“I’m really worried about all of our different ethnicities. I’m really worried about our second language learners,” says Don Grotting, the David Douglas superintendent.

One reason Grotting is concerned about the district’s ELL students has to do with upcoming tests upcoming tests tied to the new Common Core standards. The new tests have fewer multiple choice questions, and depend a lot more on students’ ability to explain ideas in writing.

Learn More About The Common Core

The Common Core is a series of tough new learning standards that are being implemented in 45 states, including Oregon.

Lucero hopes the Common Core curriculum can improve language instruction — for example, teaching kids the language and context they need to explain predictions.

“Predicting is a skill that we use all the time in reading — predicting what might happen next in a story,” Lucero says. “It’s certainly a skill we use in science all the time. “

Ability To Use Language Is The Key

In Octavio’s classroom at Earl Boyles, teacher Nicole Rauch McGowan spent a recent morning trying to get her students to make predictions in a science experiment. “Raise your hand, if you have an idea — a guess — about what ‘hypothesize’ might mean?” she asks. “Analyzing data. That sounds like a real teacher word right there.”

Octavio and his classmates move to tables where there are cups of water topped with shaving cream. They’re predicting what will happen as they drop blue liquid on top.

“They just stayed,” Octavio says, watching the first few drops of blue liquid settle. But later, he notes that when they added more blue drops in the same place, the color passed through the shaving cream.

Introducing English vocabulary through science can engage kids. But some parents would like to see more one-on-one for bilingual students.

Ashley’s mother, Rosalva Melchor, thinks there’s more the David Douglas School District could do for her daughter. She wishes the school had a bilingual program.

“It’s good that they’re teaching her in English … but I want her to learn Spanish, too,” she says.

Making Progress

By the spring of first grade, Octavio and Ashley were doing pretty well, especially in reading and language.

Octavio could describe the elements of a story, where it takes place and the characters in it.

Octavio Describes "Setting"

But he is still reluctant to talk to the whole class. He’s more confident one-on-one, or in a small group.

Ashley, too. She joins a classmate who is poring over a Dr. Seuss book and confidently reads aloud: “You can do three, but I can do more. You have three, but I have four.”

Click for larger image

Click for larger image

Sloan Chambers

First graders are expected to know more about numbers than what comes up in “Ten Apples Up On Top,” though. The Common Core includes some pre-algebra concepts early on. Ashley’s teacher, Karen McDonald, has been working with her, using small blocks to serve as counting units.

“OK, that’s ten. You had three over here, and seven over here, and you put them together, but we don’t want to do that,” McDonald says, as the two huddle over a math problem together.

Ashley wants to add three and seven. But she’s supposed to figure out what number she needs to add to three, to get to seven.

“One-two-three-four-five-six-seven. So how many more do you need for this stick, to be the same as this stick?” McDonald asks.

“Four?” Ashley replies.

“Yes,” says McDonald. “Good job.” 

Spring Conferences

Parental involvement is a major factor in a student’s educational success. But for many parents, finding the time to help kids with homework, attend school functions, and engage with teachers can be difficult.

At Octavio’s parent teacher conference in the spring, teacher Heather Gerritz shared lots of good news about Octavio’s academic progress with his mom, but on the behavior side, the teacher mentions the case of the missing pencil. A teacher saw Octavio throw away a special pencil belonging to another child. The teacher says that when asked about it, he didn’t own up to his actions right away.

Teachers emphasize that Octavio is a nice boy, but that he has to make better choices. That’s a phrase you’ll hear a lot around Earl Boyles.

Octavio and his cousin, Ashley, are both on track to reach first grade reading standards. They’re making huge strides in language. Octavio has advanced four levels in a single year. Ashley has jumped three levels. A single level of growth often takes some kids more than a year.

Melchor was still working two jobs when parent conferences rolled around, so Ashley’s father, Justo Celestino de Jesus, attended instead.

McDonald methodically walked him through Ashley’s performance on dozens of reading, writing, and math standards. Celestino de Jesus listened closely, patiently waiting for the interpreter to translate, but did not speak until the very end.

Then, he nodded proudly toward his daughter and said, “It sounds like she’s doing well.”


This project is part of American Graduate — Let’s Make It Happen! — a public broadcasting initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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