Summer school means something special for hundreds of bilingual Ontario students, many with family ties to Mexico: the chance to learn about Mexico’s culture and heritage to strengthen their sense of identity.
That’s because, for years, the district has relied on bicultural, bilingual teachers from Mexico who travel to this small town on the Idaho border to bring Mexico to students who’ve only heard about the place their parents or grandparents and generations before them called home.
The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted education across Oregon. Over the next weeks and months, The Oregonian/OregonLive and Oregon Public Broadcasting are teaming up to examine the impact in a state already struggling with chronic absenteeism and one of the nation’s worst graduation rates. The latest effort — a series on Summer Learning — will involve reporting from reporters at three additional news outlets: The Bulletin, Medford Mail-Tribune and Ontario Argus-Observer.
Summer school kicked off on Monday in Ontario, but for students, their parents and their teachers, the 2020 version just won’t be the same.
Distance learning that has been required since mid-March in place of face-to-face teaching due to COVID-19 will continue throughout the summer. And the novel coronavirus also means that there will be no binational teachers in their community, something that many students, teachers and community members look forward to every year.
Ontario School District’s summer school program is run by its migrant education department. The elementary school version is available for all migrant students – defined in federal law as those in families who have moved between school districts in the past three years due to agricultural work — and a certain number of other high-need students selected by their teachers.
The middle school program is open to all students in grades six through eight, and the high school program is for migrant students and English language learners.
In all, according to migrant program director Anabel Ortiz-Chavolla, summer school serves about 800 of Ontario’s 2,300 students.
The 2020 school year would have been the eighth year of the binational teacher program. The exchange program is an initiative of the Ontario district’s migrant education department and is funded through the U.S. Department of Education and the Ministry of Education in Mexico.
Last year: Cultural benefits of binational teachers
Ontario High’s parent involvement coordinator, Teresa Figueroa, in 2019 called the binational teacher program a cornerstone of Ontario’s summer school program.
That year, the district welcomed Marisol Ortega and Noemi Espinoza from Jalisco, Mexico, to teach the elementary school students. Ortega specializes in teaching dance to young children and Espinoza is an art teacher. Ortega taught at Alameda Elementary School and Espinoza was at May Roberts Elementary School.
“We are here to share our culture, Mexican culture,” Ortega said after a parent night held at Ontario High School. “Some of the kids can speak Spanish. But some of them come from Mexican families, like third generation, so now they don’t speak any Spanish or they don’t know about Mexican culture. So that’s why we are here to share this.”
The students of Ortega’s class performed multiple classic Mexican dances for the audience that night, while Espinoza hosted a booth with face painting and a display of the work that the students had done that summer.
Figueroa, the parent involvement coordinator, said many of the families whose children take part in the summer program are so busy working that some parents miss out on teaching their children about their culture.
“Some of them are second-generation and, because they were born here, they don’t really know that cultural part of their life, you know, like the dances,” Figueroa said. “Some kids might not get that from their family, so to get that piece from one of the teachers, it’s great.”
Ortiz-Chavolla said the district surveys summer school families after every year and the response to the binational teacher program is always the same.
“The parents are always overwhelmingly positive about, and grateful about, the opportunity for their student to be immersed into the language, in the culture and whatever skills that particular instructor brought with them,” Ortiz-Chavolla said.
Two of those students were Natalia and Isaiah Larios, who were in Ortega’s dance class last summer. According to their mother, Hilda Arreola, the two really enjoyed it.
“It was honestly really nice,” Arreola said. “It brings different types of cultures from different countries to the students.”
This summer: Difficult to measure the effect of lost teachers
The impact of losing the binational teachers this year is hard to put into words, Ortiz-Chavolla said.
“I don’t think you can quantify it,” said Ortiz-Chavolla, who also came from a migrant family in Payette, Idaho. “It has deep roots, and families that are immigrant families, they might not have the time to really teach about their background to their children, and they’re growing up in a different country. They might not have the time or the resources or even the knowledge to know how to.”
Ortiz-Chavolla said the migrant program considered injecting more Mexican culture into its homegrown summer school curriculum to make up for the loss of the binational teachers, but program officials were too far along in the planning process to add it.
She said that since they don’t know what the binational teachers would have specifically focused on this summer, they were unsure what to add.
“We were already almost done with all our planning and our packets are all figured in. Our supplies were all bought and ready to be distributed,” Ortiz-Chavolla said. “We didn’t have enough time to order everything and get it here on time.”
This summer, Natalia and Isaiah Larios are at home, taking a mixture of math and reading with a little bit of art, Arreola said.
Ortiz-Chavolla said one of the selling points of distance learning this summer is projects that are being hand-delivered to students’ homes to keep them busy.
“We’re still going to be doing the basic reading and math skills throughout,” Ortiz-Chavolla said. “But we’re going to be infusing the activities with more hands-on projects.
“So the one difference between the regular year and summer is, instead of just delivering the packets for those students who don’t have a computer, we’ll also deliver a kit every week that includes all of the supplies that they will need for their projects that week.”
Ortiz-Chavolla said the drop-off boxes include a wide range of materials, including items like paper, scissors and clay. It also gives members of the migrant education program the opportunity to check in on the students every week.
Note: Interviews with Marisol Ortega and Noemi Espinoza were translated by Teresa Figueroa. The interview with Hilda Arreola was translated by Cecilia Escobedo. This story was edited by Betsy Hammond of The Oregonian/Oregonlive.