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Portland Public Schools Board votes to change Lenten Elementary to a bilingual-only school

The Portland Public Schools Board voted Tuesday night to shut down the neighborhood school program at Elementary Lent, moving the school to dual-language immersion only next year.

The decision was a delayed final piece of the district’s plan to move ward boundaries for 20 schools in Southeast Portland. Table voted last may to approve the boundary changes, but delayed action on Lent Primary School, citing the need for increased community engagement. Slow K-5 currently houses two programs: one is taught in English for students living in the surrounding neighborhood; the other is a bilingual program in Spanish and English that families access through the district enrollment lottery.

Starting next year, Lenten students in the school’s Neighborhood English Program will instead attend Marysville K-5, a mile and a half to the west. Bilingual students will continue through Lent, joined by bilingual students from Bridger Elementary. Kindergarten students and older students entering Lent “with Spanish language experience” will be able to enroll in the immersion program without having to enter the lottery.

“Having programs co-located in one building often leads to isolation and programmatic inequities,” said PPS Schools Leader Jon Franco. “That was the raison d’etre, and it is currently the raison d’etre.”

On Tuesday evening, district officials said that, given the extra time they have for community engagement, they have been reaching out to families by mail, phone calls and in-person meetings over the past three months.

An Elementary Lent OPB girl photo taken in March 2022. The school, which previously hosted an English-language program for students in the district and also a bilingual Spanish and English program for students across the district, will transition to double-immersion language only from the next school year.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff/OPB

They heard testimonies from 30 parents or guardians, representing a third of university students studying English during Lent. Engagement efforts did not include Bilingual Program students and meetings were not recorded.

Families who have signed up have expressed concerns about transportation and child care in Marysville, and district officials have reported an “overriding” interest in staying at Lent Elementary.

Staff and community members expressed concern that mobilization efforts were not sufficient.

Stefania Ramirez Velazquez is a fifth grade bilingual immersion teacher at Lent. She said students, especially those in the bilingual immersion program, had not had the opportunity to share their thoughts on the change.

“Our families are counting on the board and the district to make sure they are heard and that actions are taken to their fullest ability,” Ramirez Velazquez said during public comments ahead of the school board’s vote. “It feels like the decision has already been made before we even listened to our community, and listened to our families, and especially listened to our students.”

Oregon State Rep. Khanh Pham represents the region, including Lent, and has a sophomore in Bridger who will enroll in the bilingual Lent program next year.

Pham sent a letter to the board last week and spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, asking for more time to engage the community.

She said she heard from parents who had not been interviewed and that families speaking languages ​​other than English, including Vietnamese, Chinese and Russian, did not show up at community meetings. In her message to the school board, she attached a letter from students from last year which included the signatures of 176 students.

“We are against this change,” the students wrote last spring. “We want to stay as a whole school because Lent is a special place.”

District officials said they called each family and shared three updates with families in September and October.

As they pushed the board to adopt their recommendation, officials pointed to the ripple effect of delaying the decision again, saying staffing efforts related to boundary changes would be negatively affected. They pointed achievement score disparities between students in the Neighborhood English Program and the Bilingual Program, as well as enrollment differences. Neighborhood Program students performed lower on tests, particularly in math, and Neighborhood Program enrollment declined, although it appears to be similar to the number of Spanish immersion students.

Board member Eilidh Lowery said she was voting yes because of the board’s stated goals of improving student achievement.

“Looking at these numbers…I really feel like we need to do something different for our students in the English Scholars programme,” Lowery said.

During her public comment, Rep. Pham expressed both security and academic concerns. She noted that to get to Marysville, students might have to cross I-205, East 92nd and East 82nd Ave. – a major artery with a history of pedestrian fatalities. Pham also warned that chronic absenteeism could worsen if students had a longer commute.

“I fear that by trying to help these students, we are unwittingly creating new barriers to their academic success,” Pham said.

The board approved the move 5-2, with Vice Chairman Gary Hollands and Board Member Julia Brim-Edwards voting no.

Brim-Edwards questioned the link between achievement scores as the reason for the move and expressed hesitation about the plan in general.

“I’m afraid we’re being asked to vote on something with a promise that was made to the community,” Brim-Edwards said, citing questions about transportation and child care.

District officials said they had committed to providing both services to families moving to the new school, but offered few details.

The change is expected to take place next fall. Student representative Byronie McMahon, who also voted no, asked district and school officials to make the transition as smooth as possible for affected families. “The important thing will be to make sure that every student is direct – we talk to them directly, we make sure they feel comfortable changing schools… because it’s a huge change, it’s true.”

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