Woodburn’s dual-language programs promote academic success
French Prairie Middle School eighth-grader Danna Saldivar works with George Roberts, who teaches English language arts and social studies. Saldivar feels comfortable doing schoolwork in Spanish and English. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
French Prairie Middle School eighth-grader Danna Saldivar didn’t know English when she started kindergarten. Now she is planning to study law at Harvard.
Thanks to Woodburn School District’s dual-language program, Saldivar is academically fluent in English and Spanish.
“I know being a bilingual person will be helpful for college and jobs,” she said.
Two-thirds of Woodburn’s students have little or no mastery of English when they start school, according to district officials, yet only about 8 percent are still considered English language learners in high school. Most of Woodburn’s ELL students are transfer students.
Woodburn has an 88.9 percent graduation rate, 12 percentage points above the state average. Woodburn students who at some point in their academic career needed to take English support classes have an 87.4 percent graduation rate. District leaders credit the dual-language programs for not only boosting students’ proficiency in English, but also enhancing their learning ability.
“English language learners who are living in high-poverty situations aren’t supposed to graduate at those rates,” Woodburn Superintendent Chuck Ransom said. Ransom calls the dual-language programs the backbone of Woodburn’s success because they answer a specific need of his community.
Woodburn started its dual-language program about 20 years ago and has been fully committed to it for more than a decade, according to Ransom.
More than 80 percent of Woodburn’s students are Latino, some in families that have recently immigrated. Another 7 percent are Russian or Ukrainian, a mixture of a long-established community, recent arrivals and Russian-heritage students from nearby communities.
Parents can choose one of three paths for students: English and Spanish; English and Russian; or just English. About 80 percent of students enter one of the dual-language tracks, including those who only speak English. Core classes are taught in Spanish or Russian by bilingual teachers. Students develop fundamental numeracy and literacy in Spanish or Russian while they are learning English. The approach keeps students from developing academic gaps as they learn English.
By about fifth grade, most students are proficient in both languages, according to administrators.
The ratio of instruction flips as students progress, and by middle school, core subjects are taught in English. Students can continue to take courses in Spanish or Russian through high school so they can build their academic vocabulary.
Nabor Piña teaches Spanish literacy, one of Saldivar’s classes at French Prairie. The class is conducted entirely in Spanish. When students lapse into English, Piña pretends not to understand them until they speak Spanish. Piña says he is teaching the same literary concepts students would learn in an English language arts class.
The mental gymnastics required to shuffle academic content ideas between two languages seems to increase the learning capacity of students, according to research.
“It’s like their brains are doing push-ups,” said Laurie Cooper, Woodburn’s director of teaching and proficiency learning.
Saldivar recalls that it was a little scary to start school not knowing English.
“Luckily my teacher was from Mexico,” she said. “I felt like I belonged here.”
Saldivar said having bilingual teachers helped her learning. She could ask questions in Spanish instead of wrestling with their unfamiliar English equivalents, allowing her to expand knowledge in both languages.
The benefits stretch beyond the classroom. The language offerings show respect for students’ families and honor what they bring to the table, Ransom says.
“When you start celebrating people’s culture and language every day in the classroom, in the schools, it does a lot to boost confidence in the community,” Ransom said.
Diana Rodriguez has two children, ages 5 and 7, in the Spanish dual-language program. Rodriguez is fluent in Spanish and English, and her household speaks a mixture of the languages. She said having Spanish speakers in the school made it more inclusive and accessible.
“Having administrators who speak the language, having teachers who speak the language and know the culture, is important for the families, for the kids, to see themselves in the staff of the schools,” she said. “Families feel more comfortable being part of the school system. When teachers and staff know the language, parents don’t feel that barrier there.”
Alexandra Afonin has two children in the district, an 8-year-old in the Russian dual-language program and an 11-year-old who was in the program but has moved out of it now. Afonin’s family speaks Russian at home, but she says her children speak and write Russian better than she does. The Russian program makes the community want to be a part of the school and participate, she said.
“It is amazing,” she said. “School staff know when the Russian holidays are. They know when we are doing fasting for different holidays.”
Juggling concepts between two languages also helps students build discipline to face the more rigorous work of high school. Too often, students fail classes in their freshman year, fall behind and then drop out because they can’t see a way to catch up. Students more prepared for the transition from middle school to high school are better able to stay on track.
Woodburn can see the dual-language programs paying off. Woodburn’s scores for assessment tests are often low in the younger grades and middle school when students are still learning English but scores soar when students are in 11th grade and fluent in two languages, according to district data.
Students who learn to read and do math proficiently in their native languages transfer those skills over once they become English proficient and the testing scores go up, said Jennifer Dixon, principal for Woodburn Success, the district’s alternative high school. Dixon is a district data specialist.
“Our elementary results don’t look great but those are the same students who are graduating at these tremendous rates,” Dixon said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
Day 1: Woodburn created smaller high schools so students don’t fall through the cracks
Day 3: Dedicated college and career counseling helps students through uncharted territory