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PPS ponders Woodstock School changes

by: DAVID F. ASHTON - Before the Woodstock Language Immersion program meeting at Woodstock Elementary School, PPS Senior Policy Advisor Jonathan Jon Isaacs, Senior Equity Manager Hector Roché, Interim Director of Dual Language Immersion Debbie Armendariz, and new Woodstock Elementary Principal T.J. Fuller prepare for the discussion ahead.By most measures, the Mandarin Immersion Program at Woodstock Elementary School is one of the most successful programs of its kind in the nation.

So much so, that families have bought homes in the school’s catchment area, moving here specifically so their children would be eligible to enroll.

According to information put out to Woodstock Elementary parents by Portland Public Schools PPS, the Board of Education is considering changes.

The announcement promoting a meeting in the school’s cafeteria on the evening of October 16 said, about the options:

“These run the gamut from just admitting more native Mandarin speakers to the existing program, to eliminating the neighborhood program altogether and giving neighborhood children preference in admission to a school-wide Mandarin immersion program.”

The decision to explore changes to the program were set into motion about three weeks before, when the PPS Board of Directors voted to “expand” three Dual Language Immersion programs, explained PPS Senior Policy Advisor Jonathan Isaacs while attendees came in cafeteria.

“These [possibilities] include one additional Spanish strand; another is to begin the assessment of a Vietnamese Dual Language Immersion strand; also to expand the Mandarin Immersion program into an additional strand,” Isaacs announced.

In terms of language immersion, Isaacs defined a “strand” as a continuing educational program that starts with kindergarten students, and continues that language immersion program on through middle school, and then continues on through high school graduation.

In the case of the Woodstock Language Immersion program, its current students continue their program at Hosford Middle School, and later on at Cleveland High School.

The reason for holding the meeting on October 16th, Isaacs told THE BEE, was to begin “a transparent process of discussion”; nothing was to be decided that evening.

PPS Interim Director of Dual Language Immersion Debbie Armendariz, who was formerly Principal of Atkinson Elementary School until August, started the meeting.

As she spoke, the room continued to fill, until about 140 people had crowded into the Woodstock Elementary School cafeteria.

“In these programs, we need to include “English Language Learners, to bridge the achievement gap,” Armendariz explained to the group.

“We know we have an achievement gap. We know that Dual Immersion Language programs are a ‘high leverage strategy’ for closing the achievement gap. So, any new option would need to include that, as a component.

“I do want to clarify about the programs,” Armendariz continued. “The immersion program model in Portland Public Schools requires native English speakers [be included].”

As they consider expanding the program in three target languages, Armendariz said they realize that the Southeast schools are “very populated. We have not been able to identify buildings that have empty classrooms, so you can’t just start a program that goes from nothing. We do have an overcrowding issue which is a whole different conversation. That is part of why we are looking at Woodstock [Elementary].”

Citing statistics, Armendariz later added, “African American students make up 11% of our total student population; but only 2% of them are accessing language immersion programs.”

The information sheet handed to all participants echoed many of Armendariz's comments.

The handout also stated:

“Currently PPS offers only one Chinese Immersion program. This program is not considered a Two-Way program because it lacks balanced participation by native Chinese speakers. Greater participation by native Chinese speakers would enhance the current program by providing authentic language and culture models of the partner language. Furthermore expanding opportunities for native Chinese speaking students could also expand opportunities for native English speakers to access these programs.”

Expansion scenarios presented were:

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  • Begin an additional two-strand program at a yet to be identified school in the Madison or Franklin cluster.

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  • Enhance the access that native Chinese speakers have to our currently existing Dual Language Immersion (DLI) program at Woodstock by setting aside half of the slots for native Chinese speakers.

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  • Expand the current DLI program at Woodstock by adding one or two more strands.

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  • Expand the current DLI program at Woodstock by creating an all-school two-way BLI program with preference given to neighborhood families.

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  • Begin, at least, a two-strand program at King K-8 School that then articulates to Jefferson.

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  • Begin a two-strand program at a yet to be identified school in the Jefferson cluster with capacity and interest.

    Some parents, who said theyd moved into the Woodstock neighborhood so their students could participate in the immersion program, spoke passionately about the possibility of having their children excluded from the program.

    Others expressed their belief that students from both outside and inside the neighborhood should be able to attend the school.

    After the meeting concluded, several parents who spoke with THE BEE agreed that the discussion was civil, but that a relatively high level of concern was expressed regarding the future of the school.

    “There was an impressive turnout of parents with students currently enrolled at the Woodstock Elementary School, and parents interested in getting their child in,” commented Brooklyn resident Robert Kobus, parent of a first grader in the school’s Mandarin Immersion program.

    Kobus told THE BEE that he found the presentation informative.

    “The meeting ended without any definite resolution to the problems raised,” Kobus observed. “The presenting panel indicated that the main reason why no solution was provided was because they believed that not all of the stakeholders were present at the session.”

    After the meeting, Kobus said he himself spoke with parents of students who attend the school and heard two primary desired outcomes:

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  • Make the Dual Language Immersion (DLI) program at Woodstock Elementary School a single, all-encompassing program that feeds into one middle school and then into one high school, similar to the Japanese immersion program at Portlands Richmond School.

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  • Expand Woodstocks current DLI program by adding two strands, as long as there is either capacity for the expansion or the ability to make the necessary expansions.

    As the schools previous Principal, Mary Patterson, conveyed to many of us, in essence, We are one community of learners, and we need to work together to remain one community of learners, Kobus concluded.