When Olga Huiles Tunay’s daughter Ashley starts sixth grade at Portland’s Roseway Heights Middle School this fall, the mother of three is confident her eldest child will be familiar with her new school’s structure.
Ashley will also be ready to jump right into her next math class with little if any refreshers and she won’t suffer from the dreaded “summer slump.”
That’s because Ashley, 11, and her younger sister Ivonne, 8, have taken summer courses through Portland Public Schools’ migrant program for the last three years. This summer, the district expects 126 migrant children entering kindergarten through eighth grade in the fall will take part.
This year’s four-week summer program began Monday.
Students start each day with a teacher-led social emotional learning exercise. Daily lessons focus on literacy and math. And families will have one-on-one check-ins with their children’s teacher each week.
But it won’t be the same as in previous summers, when Ashley and other students filed into a classroom for in-person instruction.
Ongoing physical distancing mandates in Multnomah County mean Huiles Tunay’s children and other participants will get their lessons digitally. Those social-emotional check-ins will happen via a district-issued Chromebook.
Ashley’s makeshift classroom is a small table that sits on the edge of the family kitchen. Ivonne studies in her bedroom.
Ashley said it’s more difficult to focus when class is taught at a distance. She hopes in-person instruction makes a return in the fall.
“This isn’t the same,” Ashley said, her Chromebook cracked open in front of her. “I miss my teacher. I miss my friends.”
Parents can also sign their children up for weekly one-hour group lessons once the four-week program ends. Ashley and Ivonne’s lessons will be taught primarily in Spanish.
Huiles Tunay and her husband immigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala in 2008, first settling in Los Angeles before moving to Portland in 2011.
They don’t speak much English. And Huiles Tunay said the dual-language immersion program at Scott Elementary, where Ivonne just finished second grade, has helped the family cultivate a sense of community in their slice of Northeast Portland.
“I feel like I can be very involved in my girls’ education,” Huiles Tunay said. “I, myself, can help them with their homework. If I have any questions, I know there’s someone I can ask for help, too.”
The lack of a language barrier — Scott students in the dual-language program get 90% of their instruction in Spanish — has helped Huiles Tunay track her children’s academic progress. When Ashley was in first grade, Huiles Tunay noticed her oldest child was somewhat easily distracted and a little forgetful.
That’s how Huiles Tunay found out about the summer learning program. Summer instruction would help Ashley retain more information, the girl’s teacher told Huiles Tunay, and also prepare her for the expectations her second grade teacher will have.The Huiles Tunay children have been taking summer classes ever since.
“The program has been very important for us,” Huiles Tunay said. “It keeps my children engaged so I know they’re well prepared for the next grade."
In Marion County, Ronda Johnson has spent the last couple of months developing the Woodburn district’s digital summer programs by trial and error.
When the novel coronavirus shuttered public schools across the state, Johnson, who coordinates the district’s migrant programs, was thrust into a world where the spread of a deadly pathogen meant she’d have to upend the way she educated first-graders at Woodburn’s Nellie Muir Elementary.
In the pre-coronavirus days, Johnson could watch students for facial expressions or fidgets that told her they might not understand a given day’s lesson. Now, she painstakingly revises video scripts to make sure her instructions are extra clear.
“You have to teach even better than you do in-person,” Johnson said.
Tracking attendance was also much simpler. Every day, 24 children marched into her classroom in the morning and scurried out in the afternoon. During the first week of distance learning, Johnson averaged 11 students during Zoom lessons.
She spent the next 14 days calling parents to find out why she didn’t see their children’s names on the screen. Sometimes it was because the family couldn’t figure out how to navigate the district-issued Chromebook’s menus.
If the household lacked internet access, she helped the family navigate the process to get online.
After the fourth week of distance learning, Johnson averaged one, maybe two absences per week.
“You just have to be flexible,” she said. “Sometimes the internet goes out and it’s nobody’s fault. You follow up and do everything you can to help.”
Johnson said the approaches she’s developed since Gov. Kate Brown ordered Oregon’s public schools to close will inform how other Woodburn educators teach about 500 migrant children in the coming weeks.
In previous years, about 20 teachers led classes of 22 to 25 children. But students require more individual attention under distance learning, Johnson said.
“You’ll hear that teaching kids in-person takes a lot of energy, and it does,” Johnson said. “But you’ve got a lot more control and room to move around.”
This year, 12 Pacific University students will join seven Woodburn teachers to run summer learning programs for children entering grades six through eight.
Students will spend half an hour at the beginning of each week in class meetings in which their instructors will lay out the lesson plan for the coming days. They’ll receive a half hour in reading instruction one day, math for a half hour another day and have two days of science and technology instruction.
Children entering the elementary grades will also attend class meetings on Mondays, with a mix of pre-recorded videos and synchronous class sessions covering different subjects throughout the week.
Teachers will send notes directly to parents each Friday detailing where their child has excelled and where they may need to improve.
Over the last few weeks, Johnson has spent hours training both university students and Woodburn faculty in approaches that have worked for her since school closures led districts to adopt distance learning programs.
The main thing she’s stressed for those educators in the lead up to summer classes, which start next week, is that they’ll need to be more deliberate with their time. Johnson had six months to establish a personal relationship with her 24 students before they had to start on distance learning.
Educators teaching summer classes won’t have that luxury.
“If this is your only 30 minutes with them, you have to be that much more effective with them in those 30 minutes, otherwise it’s just time lost,” she said.
In the Forest Grove district, which serves approximately 6,100 children in the westernmost reaches of Washington County, instruction for migrant students will similarly be online-only.
District officials only made that call recently, Program Coordinator Leonard Terrible said, citing uncertainties in programming and limits of just 10 students per class for in-person sessions brought on by the novel coronavirus.
“We really won’t know what the population is going to be until the first week of school,” Terrible said. “It’s a bit touch-and-go.”
On an average year, Forest Grove has between 300 and 400 migrant students enrolled in summer programs in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. The district employs two teachers per grade, putting the average class size at between 20 and 25 students.
This year, Terrible said, nine teachers will begin summer programming June 22 with others ready to go online depending on how enrollment shakes out. Children who enroll in summer classes will keep the district-issued Chromebooks they received at the outset of the statewide school closures.
As soon as schools were ordered closed in mid-March, Forest Grove educators front-loaded their new distance learning outreach to migrant households to ensure students had a device and access to the internet.
“In March, everyone was thrown into a reality they weren’t comfortable with,” Terrible said. “The majority of people — parents and teachers — had to learn something they did not know how to do well.”
One particular hurdle Forest Grove teachers had to overcome with migrant parents was their hesitancy to sign off on their children borrowing a district computer as paperwork indicated they’d be on the hook if their kid broke the machine.
“What we have been finding, especially with some populations, is that technology is really, really, really remote for some of the parents involved,” Terrible said. “They feel comfortable using their smartphone but don’t really trust, say, a laptop computer.”
In Woodburn, Johnson said some families preferred to use their smartphone to dial into Zoom sessions or to video conference with her outside of regular class times.
Johnson answers calls from parents as late as 9 p.m., sometimes 10 p.m. She knows distance learning has introduced a level of stress to the lives of families she’s worked and built trust with over months.
And even though Johnson feels confident in her lesson plans and that her kids are learning something from week to week, she misses the face-to-face interactions that have kept her teaching for nearly three decades.
“I know it’s a drag. It’s not what we signed up for and it’s not what we want to do,” Johnson said of distance learning. “But if you show up excited, even the parents are getting excited about the learning and what they have to do.”
Huiles Tunay, whose daughters are enrolled in Portland’s migrant education programs, said her family’s own transition to distance learning went smoothly due in large part to the help she got from Scott staff who helped her set up internet services and configure her children’s district-issued Chromebooks.
“They told me not to worry,” Huiles Tunay said. “And they really helped us. They took care of us.”
Olga Huiles Tunay was interviewed in Spanish for this story.