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Oregon Schools Navigate Serving English Learners In A Distance Learning World

By Elizabeth Miller (OPB)
April 14, 2020 1 p.m.

Umatilla fourth grader Gabe Gutierrez has been out of school for weeks now. He’s kept busy watching TV, reading and taking walks with his family, but he’s sad to be out of the classroom.


“I just, I just miss it,” Gabe said.

Gabe is an English language learner who attends McNary Heights Elementary. At the dinner table recently, Gabe’s parents asked him what he missed most about school.

“Recess, math … technology,” he said.

These days, Gabe’s mother, Isis Ilias, said their dinner table has become an office, a school and a cafeteria.

Gabe Gutierrez is a fourth grader at McNary Heights Elementary in Umatilla. His English as a second language class has moved online for the rest of the year.

Gabe Gutierrez is a fourth grader at McNary Heights Elementary in Umatilla. His English as a second language class has moved online for the rest of the year.

Isis Ilias

In eastern Oregon’s Umatilla School District, distance learning started at the beginning of April. The district delivered laptops and paper packet lessons to students, and it stationed Wi-Fi-equipped buses in disconnected neighborhoods. Superintendent Heidi Sipe has hosted Facebook Live sessions to share information with families.

Staff and teachers have tried to remove the barriers to learning from home for all of the district's 1,400 students. But in households where English isn't the primary language, connecting to school can be difficult. English learners are more likely to experience poverty and to live in homes without high-speed internet and multiple devices for online learning, according to the Oregon Department of Education's English Language Learner Report.

Gabe recently had his first English as a second language class with his teacher Charlotte Engelhart.

“I was so excited that I was going to see my students again!” said Engelhart to her students during that first “virtual” session. Engelhart has transformed her home teaching space to look like her jungle-themed classroom. Her students noticed.

“I thought you were in your class,” one student said. “It looked like you were in your class when you were reading the book!”

Engelhart meets with Gabe’s class twice a week now. It’s a small group, which gives her time to  focus on each student. They do the same things they would in a physical school — reading, listening, writing and speaking English.

Umatilla English as a second language teacher Charlotte Engelhart has transformed her home work space to look like her McNary Heights Elementary classroom.

Umatilla English as a second language teacher Charlotte Engelhart has transformed her home work space to look like her McNary Heights Elementary classroom.

Courtesy of Charlotte Engelhart

For Engelhart and her colleagues, switching to Google Classroom hasn’t been as stressful as it may have been for other teachers. They’ve been using the online tools all year.

And before schools closed, students used digital tools like FlipGrid to record videos answering English speaking prompts. With distance learning, they’ll continue using it.

Umatilla is one of Oregon's smaller districts, and its English Language Development team is able to connect teachers and staff relatively easily and educational efforts can be consistent among the district’s three schools.

It’s a different equation in school districts that are a lot bigger.

Larger districts use in-house translators and get creative

Oregon’s largest school districts also have the most students identified as English learners. Several of these districts, including Portland Public Schools, Salem-Keizer Public Schools and Beaverton School District, have in-house folks who can translate all communication into five or more languages to communicate with a large number of students and families.

Like Umatilla, school staff in several districts have been calling families individually. In Salem-Keizer schools, staff use a texting platform to communicate with families, and the district is creating instructional videos in multiple languages so families can learn how to use a Chromebook or log on to Google Classroom. District officials in Hillsboro say they’re seeing such a high volume of requests for translation services from teachers, it’s causing delays.

Beaverton district staff say professional development will be provided to both English Language Development teachers and classroom teachers. If teachers need immediate communication with families, they use an online service called Talking Points.

Related: As Oregon Schools Roll Out Distance Learning, Some Students May Be Left Behind

“We are networking with other districts and states so we ensure our students are still able to access the best language supports despite the current setting,” Beaverton Administrator for Multilingual Programs Toshiko Maurizio said.

As these districts continue to distribute computers to students, administrators say their English learner students have been included. And if they haven’t, staff will continue to try and reach them individually.

The Reynolds School District is just starting to distribute devices to families after sending out a survey to determine technology needs. Families without internet access or email accounts will get information about the district’s learning system as a photo in a text message.

But district officials expressed concerns that parents may ignore the texts from an unfamiliar number, or that a translation may be delayed because of other requests.

Oregon's more than 53,000 English Learners speak more than 160 languages, according to ODE, including a growing population of Guatemalan students who speak indigenous languages. ODE said there are few educational materials in those languages (though there is COVID-19 information available in those languages).

Teachers at two of these large school districts spoke to OPB about their own apprehension for distance learning.

One teacher said it's unreasonable to expect families to “co-facilitate learning, design consistent routines, and establish the learning environment,” as the Oregon Department of Education wrote in its Distance Learning for All guidance. If a family is not fluent in English, they may not be able to understand the online assignments their student is given.


Another teacher worried that students already made vulnerable will be worse off.

“They’re already getting left behind,” Portland high school teacher Tereza Bottman said. “A lot of our students are still missing technology and even if they get it, they don’t have the support to be able to use it.”

As a decades-long ESL teacher (and former ESL student), Bottman said that communication to families hasn’t been “culturally responsive or linguistically accessible.”

“We know our students, and we know what they struggle with, but it's very difficult to not be able to help them in person, and to not even be able to reach them,” Bottman said.

But even when families do receive devices or help, getting to the virtual classroom doesn’t always happen.

English learners hard to reach, despite efforts

Umatilla ESL teacher Charlotte Engelhart wasn’t sure who would show up to that first class. And although district staff worked to make sure all nine of the students in Gabe’s class received computers prior to their first meeting, only two students appeared on her computer screen.

“That’s probably my biggest worry,” Engelhart said. “Because I know I can give them the education, I know I can bring them the pictures, the stories, the opportunities to read, listen, write, and speak – but I need to get them there.”

Engelhart and her colleagues call families personally if their students haven’t checked in virtually.

A screen shot from a reading video teacher Charlotte Engelhart shared with her English as a second language students. She's reading the book at home but changed her home working space to look like her classroom.

A screen shot from a reading video teacher Charlotte Engelhart shared with her English as a second language students. She's reading the book at home but changed her home working space to look like her classroom.

Courtesy of Charlotte Engelhart

As a liaison for Spanish-speaking families for the district, Gabe’s mother Isis Ilias has been contacting families too.

“We call the families and we just walk them through, 'are you logging in? Do you have internet? Are you getting food?'” Ilias said.

ODE says it's heard districts are overwhelmed in meeting immediate needs related to housing and food.

Ilias said parents in Umatilla may be busy with urgent concerns like finding work and getting food on the table. That leaves logging on to the students.

“These children have to be independent in their learning,” Ilias said. “We’re asking kinder, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th graders to independently learn without a parent around.”

Umatilla ESL teacher Maggie Barry is nervous but trying to stay positive. In most of her elementary classes, she’s had about half the class attend. She expects some trial and error, but as long as she’s able to connect with her students and not overwhelm them with materials, she’s hopeful.

“For ESL, you need that interaction, that one on one with them, and to be able to communicate and help them process and communicate information is really important,” Barry said. “It’s hard to do it from a distance. I’m hoping using this technology that we have will help.”

Seeing the hope, opportunity

Distance learning will be a challenge for everyone. That’s before adding language barriers to all of the other challenges public school families are facing right now.

While Charlotte Engelhart understands the challenges she and others face, she sees an upside to her new teaching situation and her district’s ability to educate all of its students.

“We can get a little more creative as educators, it kind of sharpens our skills,” Engelhart said.

Related: With Oregon Schools Likely Closed For The Year, Officials Shift To 'Distance Learning For All'

Oregon State University professor of education Karen Thompson  conducts research into the experiences of multilingual students in the region and nationally. With distance learning, she understands that student experience will differ depending on the district.

Thompson has questions, as she looks ahead to district efforts in the ultimate goal of ESL. What will happen to students as they prepare to prove English language proficiency? Students take tests to determines whether they're ready to exit an English language program. And how will schools handle attendance and grades, especially for high school seniors? Her concerns come in the context of an Oregon four-year graduation rate for English learners of 60% — 20 points lower than the state average.

But English learners who become fluent and exit the language support system are actually more likely to finish high school than the state average.

Thompson sees this new world as an opportunity for collaboration and to rethink practices.

“To think about what does it mean to engage families and know about students' lives outside of school, and how can we think broadly about what learning looks like,” Thompson said.

ODE officials have said students should reach out to their teachers if they haven’t heard from them yet.

That could be a tall order for the families of Oregon’s English learners. And for students, maintaining connections to teachers and classmates is a major challenge, but also the most important learning target.

When those connections happen, it offers some normalcy in such an abnormal time.

Ilias said her son had trouble sleeping with all of the coronavirus news. But after his first class with Engelhart, she says he slept through the night.

“That conversation, that peace that when teachers connect with these students, they’re really giving them reassurance that we’re all here,” Ilias said.

“We don’t get to be in the same space. But we’re here.”