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Learning the Language

The three Jackson County school districts with the largest number of English language learners fell short of meeting the federal standard last year for advancing students' proficiency in English, according to a state report issued Wednesday.

Medford, Eagle Point and Phoenix-Talent school districts, all serving the highest number of ELL students in the county, met some of the three criteria in 2006-07 for meeting the standard for English proficiency but not all.

"We were so close," said Todd Bloomquist, Medford schools curriculum director.

Ashland, Central Point and Rogue River school districts, with relatively smaller ELL populations, met all the objectives. Butte Falls, Pinehurst and Prospect, all school districts of 150 students or less, do not have ELL programs.

"The primary reason that it is easier for us to meet (the objectives) than other local districts, is that we serve far fewer ELL students in our district," said Samantha Steele, Central Point schools education director.

Students' English proficiency has been monitored by the federal government since 2003 as a part of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Meeting the federal standard for advancing English proficiency in Oregon requires 35 percent of students to advance at least one level on a scale of 1 to 5, with Level 1 indicating no knowledge of English.

All Jackson County districts accomplished that objective, despite a significant growth in the number of ELL students.

"The fact we have 57 percent going up a level is great," said Scott Townsend, Eagle Point schools ELL coordinator. "That's a 5 percent improvement from last year."

The previous year 85 percent had to advance one level to meet the federal standard. State education officials said they decided to decrease the percentage when they instituted a new, more challenging English proficiency test in 2005-06. It tests reading, writing, listening, speaking and the ability to formulate sentences.

Additionally, 50 percent of students in 2006-07 who were enrolled in an ELL program for five years or more or who scored at Level 4 the previous year had to leave the program. Finally, ELL students as a group had to meet grade-level academic standards showing proficiency in math and reading on state assessments, under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

"The problem with that is if you don't know English how are you supposed to be proficient in reading?" Townsend said. "It's sort of a Catch-22."

Eagle Point and Phoenix-Talent did not drop enough students from ELL programs to meet the federal standard, nor did their ELL students as a group meet grade-level academic benchmarks.

"We did come close to meeting the standard," said Teresa Sayre, Phoenix-Talent schools instructional services director. "We are proud we met (math and reading standards) among ELL students in our elementary and middle schools."

Phoenix-Talent offers the only elementary Spanish-English immersion programs in the county in which native Spanish speakers and native English speakers receive instruction in both Spanish and English. For that reason, English language learners in the immersion programs tend to be stronger academically but take longer to master English, Sayre said.

Townsend noted the report doesn't reflect measures districts have taken to beef up ELL programs in the past year. For example, Eagle Point hired three more ELL teachers and adopted an ELL curriculum this year.

The Medford district showed enough progress in advancing English levels and dropping students to meet the standard, but its ELL students as a group also fell short of the benchmark for math.

"We've been working like gangbusters to improve our program," Bloomquist said. "We've targeted English language development training for teachers and adopted new curriculum to meet language acquisition standards, so we hope to see the impact of that in the next three years."

Central Point, Eagle Point and other districts in the county have implemented similar training and curriculum.

The expectations for increasing English proficiency among students will continue to grow over the next four years. To meet standards in 2009-10, school districts are expected to advance 65 percent of ELL students one level each year and exit 70 percent of students in the program for five or more years.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.