Southeast PPS Russian Immersion program needs more students
Tucked inside a squat brick building in one of Portland's lower-income neighborhoods is what just might be a key to our national security problems.
At least, that's what the United States government believes – it granted about $45,000 to boost a unique program many don't even know exists in the Lents neighborhood.
It's not a secret. In fact, there's a concerted effort to get more people aware of this program, before it disappears.
Kelly Elementary School's "Russian Immersion" program is one of only a handful in the country — the others being in Alaska, Ohio, Colorado, Maryland – and, just to the south of Portland, in Woodburn.
Starting in kindergarten, students can acquire a near-native knowledge of Russian, taking school subjects using the language all the way through college, at Portland State University.
But, gentrification has caused the formerly-popular program to shrink. The Russian-language New Life Church near the school moved farther east – and, with it, its tight-knit congregation. Kelly's Russian program was still in demand, but by last year, 68 percent of its students lived outside of the service area.
Considering the overcrowding in Portland Public Schools, last summer – over the protests of hundreds of people – the school district limited the number of new out-of-district transfers. That shrunk the Russian Immersion program, from two classes in each grade to a single class in incoming kindergarten.
Kelly parent Danika Stochosky wants more in-district parents to sign their kids up for the "invisible" program. Stochosky lives in Woodstock, and formerly was an executive at the Woodstock branch of Chase Bank. She is also a former member of the Southeast Portland Rotary Club.
"We're working on getting more visible, but it's all these little pieces that need to get pushed around, and pushed around again," Stochosky says of the volunteer effort.
Though Stochosky is of Slavic descent, her child is one of the few in the program who didn't know any Russian when she started. Most of the students have parents or grandparents who speak to them in Russian.
Stochosky says the benefits of bilingual instruction that cause parents to clamor to get into the Chinese immersion program at Woodstock Elementary School are just as valid for the currently-less-popular Russian program.
"People here like Chinese, because they think that's where the market is," Stochosky remarks. "But there's no room in the Chinese or Spanish programs. [With Russian,] you're getting those same benefits. All the brainwork is the same. You build the same 'muscles'."
Benefits of bilingual instruction
PPS Dual Language Director Michael Bacon agrees with her. The research shows the benefits of being bilingual include better problem-solving skills, more mental flexibility, better literacy, and faster acquisition of other foreign languages.
For both English learners and native English speakers, "It's a win-win. Both sides win," Bacon explains. "Both sides get the values of being bilingual and biliterate."
But the point of the district's dual language programs is not to give already-privileged students a leg up. They are aimed at narrowing the achievement gap for what are now called "emerging bilingual students" – those whose native language is not English. "Gentrification has certainly impacted [the ability of] some of our linguistic minority groups, including Russian, to live in our district," Bacon says.
Some feel that the decision to cut the Russian program was politically-motivated, given the timing with President Trump's election and the suspicions of Russian meddling. But, while acknowledging that Russia has an image problem locally, Bacon refutes that.
"The rub has been because we had so many kids coming from out of the district," he said. "It was a tough decision."
Currently 11 percent of students – about 5,400 – are in a language immersion program in Portland Public Schools. The district gives immersion instruction in five languages, with a sixth – Arabic – possibly on the way. Parents sign their kindergarteners up through a lottery system, which this year extended from February 7 through March 2. Kelly's Russian program has open spots, while the three Chinese and ten Spanish programs turn away scores of kids every year.
Bacon says the cultural and linguistic opportunities provided by Portland's varied immigrant communities are an asset.
"Investing in those and really leveraging those for our community is extremely important," he says. "I would encourage families to really consider [bilingual education]. We feel like this is a strength of our system and a strength of what we can provide to our community, our schools, and our world."
Yulia Brooks, a second-grade teacher at Kelly, wants PPS to keep up two strands of the Russian classes. Attrition means that only a handful of the program's first class of students – now in 10th grade at Franklin High School – are left.
Brooks worries her native language is undervalued in American culture. "It is really special. Russian language is a very rich language. It's classical language: Tolstoy; Dostoyevsky; Pushkin; Classical music. It's a very, very beautiful language. It brings a lot of culture with it."
Brooks says she would like to see more native English speakers in her classroom, in part, "to understand Russia better. With language, you have the knowledge of that country as well." That understanding, she says, "will hopefully bring our countries closer together."
Look for information on signing up for PPS language programs here: http://www.pps.net/Page/863