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Oregon Educators Prioritize Bilingual Education

Caitlin Shelman teaching a 5th grade Spanish immersion class at Bridger Elementary School in 2012.

Caitlin Shelman teaching a 5th grade Spanish immersion class at Bridger Elementary School in 2012.

Rob Manning/OPB

Oregon has a shortage of bilingual teachers and is making ongoing efforts on several fronts to deepen one of its shallowest pools of educators.

Take, for example,  students in a  fifth grade class at Portland’s Bridger School. The students are split half-and-half between native Spanish and English speakers.  Under new strategies Oregon educators are pursuing, these fifth-graders could be part of a new generation of bilingual teachers.

Oregon has 70 schools with dual-language programs, with more on the way. Demand is booming for two reasons: research shows that dual-language programs work better for foreign-language speaking students than English-only programs.

But Esperanza de le Vega, the coordinator of Portland State University’s bilingual teacher pathway program, says there’s another big driver. “There is an educated population of sometimes bilingual, sometimes monolingual parents, who want this for their children. I think it’s great, because we have more allies,” she says.

But as programs mulitply and expand into middle and high schools, it gets harder for districts to find teachers who are both qualified in the necessary subject area, and who have  the language ability.  

Oregon State University language professor, Kathryn Ciechanowksi, says school districts pursue candidates who are still in college.

“Our bilingual candidates are very often offered jobs before they even finish their programs,” she says, and adds, “we often advise students to think carefully about what they would like to have in their teaching positions, because there typically will be multiple districts trying to hire them — because of the need for bilingual educators.”

The state of Oregon may be making that shortage worse, on both the supply and demand side. First, the demand: 

Last November, the state awarded nearly $900,000 in grants for new dual language programs in eight Oregon districts. Martha Martinez who works for the state’s new educational equity unit says, “The demand is only going to increase - not just because we’ve launched this grant project, but because these programs are just exploding, not just in the state, but nationwide.”

Bridger Elementary School (file photo)

Bridger Elementary School (file photo)

Rob Manning/OPB

The supply side of the equation involves the gatekeeper of Oregon’s teaching licenses, the Teachers Standards and Practices Commission.

Esperanza de la Vega at PSU says its mandatory tests are a problem: “For a lot of teachers who were bilingual, learned English as a second language, they struggled with some of these standardized tests. “

De la Vega gives the example of a bilingual teacher-in-training, she says was great with students.   “They were looking at the Oregon Trail and the migration process,” de la Vega explains, “and so the teacher  made a connection to families, and where they came from in the migration process: a beautiful example of how you can really create a meaningful unit of instruction that is culturally responsive and tied to high standards. She can’t pass the test.”

Keith Menk with the Teachers Standards and Practices Commission (TSPC) says the agency has heard the complaints, and the tests aren’t the problem. Generally, he says, the problem is, “that the individual assigned, largely because they were bilingual and bicultural - were not appropriately prepared to teach that content.”

TSPC is not changing test requirements.

But commissioners have moved on another front: they approved standards brought by education colleges to clarify the rules for dual-language training: “At this point in time, we’re waiting for a preparation program to come forward and say ‘we can demonstrate that we can meet those standards in rule, and here’s the program to do it.’”

Now that they know the rules, colleges of education are working to build such programs.

Kathryn Ciechanowski at OSU says she’s glad the state is addressing the needs of bilingual instruction. But, she says, “I think we do have to be a little bit cautious that it’s not one more hurdle that bilingual teachers have to deal with, that others don’t.”

Kathryn Ciechanowski, a language professor at Oregon State University's College of Education.

Kathryn Ciechanowski, a language professor at Oregon State University’s College of Education.

Rob Manning

Teenagers in bilingual programs are beginning to embrace the idea of additional hurdles.

Regan Orman will be attending Linfield College.  Orman went through additional steps to earn a special “bilingual seal” on her diploma from Corvallis High.

The seal from the dual-language program required Orman to go through several extra steps: she shadowed a bilingual professional, volunteered in a bilingual classroom, and she was interviewed in Spanish, an interview in which she had to explain an article she’d just been given.

Regan Orman went through additional steps to earn a special "bilingual seal" on her diploma from Corvallis High.

Regan Orman went through additional steps to earn a special “bilingual seal” on her diploma from Corvallis High.

Rob Manning

Orman says, “From there, it was a question-and-answer that the panel gave asking about my comprehension and my opinions, it wasn’t just whether you understood it, but your own thoughts, can you articulate these thoughts in Spanish, which is something someone who is bilingual should be able to do.”

Orman adds that her program had a weakness: she says she might be better in Spanish grammar after a traditional 4-year high school language program.

But Kathryn Ciechanowski says traditional classes don’t offer the cultural exposure Orman got from learning side-by-side with native Spanish speakers for over a decade.

Ciechanowski was on Orman’s Corvallis interview panel. She says Orman’s native Spanish-speaking classmates may have benefited most from the bilingual program. “The research is pretty clear on dual-language and the potential power that it has, for all kids - but in particular kids who speak other languages at home.”

Ultimately, professors hope these students can be part of the future, when it comes to dual-language instruction.

Regan Orman hopes so. She wants to be a teacher. She says, “the program in itself is like a cycle - it’s making new teachers to teach the students who might become teachers one day.”

Bridger K-8 is one of a number of schools that has too few classrooms to house an ideally-sized K-8. A PPS analysis finds Bridger's 23 classrooms are a better fit for an elementary school.

Bridger K-8 is one of a number of schools that has too few classrooms to house an ideally-sized K-8. A PPS analysis finds Bridger’s 23 classrooms are a better fit for an elementary school.

Rob Manning/OPB

Call it a “cycle” — or a “grow our own” strategy. It’s coming on two fronts. 

School districts like Corvallis, Hillsboro, and Salem-Keizer, are working with the state on standards for an Oregon-wide “bilingual seal” for next year’s graduating class.

Schools have the programs, but need the state rules.  

For teachers and education colleges, it’s the opposite. The state approved rules, last spring. But teaching colleges may not have the dual-language courses in place for a few years.