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Excelling in ESL

Hard work and parent connections help Hispanic students succeed at HRVHS

In Lorena Manzo’s office at Hood River Valley High School, a hand-painted sign hangs on the wall. “My teacher thought I was smarter than I was,” it reads. “So I was.”

A clutter of other things — pictures, quotes, calendars, reminders — are taped to the wall around Manzo’s desk reflecting the ever-changing nature of her hectic days. Officially, Manzo’s title is ESL Migrant Instructional Assistant. But she does everything from conducting parent conferences to translating to helping students find a place to live.

Manzo is part of a small army of ESL teachers and aides at the high school who see to the well-being and education of the school’s Hispanic students — particularly those who are new to HRVHS and, often, to the United States. Their goal is to create a hospitable learning environment in what can be a bewildering period of transition. Their Herculean task is to first teach students who know only a phrase or two of English — or none at all — the language, and then all the academics required to graduate.

In their ideal world, every Hispanic student at the school, by graduation, could read that hand-painted sign in Lorena Manzo’s office and smile with recognition.

In their ideal world, every Hispanic student at Hood River Valley High would graduate.

And in a world of hard realities, they are coming wildly close to that ideal.

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Hood River Valley High School is bucking the national trend of rising Latino dropout rates. In 2000, 34 percent of high school dropouts ages 16-19 nationwide were Latino — up from 22 percent in 1990.

Oregon has fared better. The statewide Latino high school dropout rate fell to 11 percent in 2000-01 after reaching a high of 18 percent in 1994-95.

But at Hood River Valley High School, where about one-third of the 1,200 students are Hispanic, the Latino dropout rate last year plunged to 2.4 percent — one of the lowest in the state and practically unheard of around the country.

That statistic is the result of ongoing efforts on the part of ESL staff as well as administrators at HRVHS to tailor the ESL program to address the needs of Hood River County’s growing population of Hispanic students.

The ESL program at the high school is divided into two main segments. The Newcomer classes are for students who have recently arrived in Hood River and speak little or no English.

“Most of the students in our Newcomer classes speak fewer than five or 10 phrases of English,” says Fred Trujillo, ESL coordinator at the high school. “Their first year is a very English-intensive year for them.” Five bilingual teachers conduct classes in pronunciation, dialogue and conversational English. Some other subjects are incorporated into the classes, but as Trujillo says, “it’s primarily English.”

“It’s important to make them feel comfortable and confident (in the language) so that when they go out into mainstream classes, they have the tools to succeed,” he says. After the Newcomer year, ESL students enter Focus classes for their second year at HRVHS. Focus classes — math, English, social studies and science — are taught by “regular” teachers in English, but an ESL instructional assistant is present to help translate when needed.

“The Focus classes serve as a transition from the sheltered Newcomer classes to the mainstream,” Trujillo says. Along with the four Focus classes, students take several regular elective classes that can range from physical education to art to Spanish for Spanish-speakers.

By their third year, ESL students take all regular classes. Because they’ve moved gradually into the “mainstream,” with constant ESL staff support but also constant contact with non-ESL teachers and the entire student body, the transition seems to be a smooth one for most of the students. And that translates into more of them going on to graduate.

Last year’s 2.4 percent dropout rate contrasts sharply with just three years ago, when the number was nearly 11 percent.

Lorena Manzo, who graduated from HRVHS herself in 1991, credits some of that to the ESL program but also to the parents of Hispanic students.

“One reason our kids are staying in school is that we’re actually educating the parents,” Manzo says. “Parents are understanding that school is important.” For local Hispanics, many of whom recently left Mexico and work seasonal jobs here, that means sacrificing what has long been a tradition: returning to Mexico for weeks or months during the winter.

Every chance she gets, Manzo talks to parents about the importance of keeping their children in school — of limiting their absences to the state-mandated 10 days. Manzo has seen a big change since a few years ago, when “80 to 90 percent of kids would leave” for at least a few weeks at a time — many for months. Now, according to Manzo, a majority of parents make arrangements to coordinate their trips home with school vacations.

“It’s a sacrifice for them,” Manzo says. “But they’re willing to make the sacrifice because they see that keeping their kids in school is the best thing for them.”

Another outreach effort is evening classes offered twice a week for parents of Hispanic students. The classes, which were initiated two years ago, originally began as a way for Hispanic youth ages 16-21 who were working during the day to attend classes at night.

“Parents started to come and we didn’t have the heart to tell them they couldn’t,” says Manzo, who helps teach the classes along with her brother, Jaime. The evening classes offer parents and youth a variety of skills, from basic English vocabulary to help with grocery shopping and making doctor’s appointments.

“Our hope, for the teenagers, is that the classes will work as a stepping stone to get them into school,” Manzo says. Already, three students who started in the evening classes are now enrolled in school.

The evening classes also help parents gain confidence to help their kids, as well as to stay involved in their kids’ lives, according to Trujillo.

“If parents don’t know what their kids are doing, they start to distance themselves,” he says.

The evening classes, along with other after-school activities — including an ESL study hall and a weight training class taught by Jaime Manzo — are all part of what Principal Steve Fisk calls a “grassroots intervention approach.”

“We’ve invested a lot of time in getting to know our kids and families,” Fisk says. “It really reflects our community values. And, we’re really lucky in Hood River County that we have so many bilingual adults interested in working with kids.” Fisk also credits his “hardworking, committed staff.”

Part of that commitment is being flexible in accommodating the needs of families, says Fisk — especially those working odd, and long, hours.

“We try to accommodate any family in our community,” he says. “If you can’t come in for a meeting at 3, we’ll meet you at 6 or we’ll do it on a Saturday. We haven’t relegated it to, ‘Here’s how school works and that’s how it is.’” Indeed, that philosophy benefits all students, not just Hispanics; the overall dropout rate at HRVHS last year was 2.6 percent, compared to 5.2 percent state-wide.

For HRVHS senior Joel Santillan, who moved to Hood River from Mexico with his family three years ago, the ESL Newcomer and Focus programs were the key to his success at school.

“For me, it was a great thing,” Santillan says. “When we got here, I didn’t speak English at all.” Santillan will graduate with the class of 2003 and already has plans to attend Mt. Hood Community College and then pursue a nursing career. Santillan will be one of what could be the largest group of Hispanic graduates ever at HRVHS this year. Last year, 33 percent — or nearly 400 — of the graduating seniors were Hispanic. This year should see at least that many or more in cap and gown at Henderson Stadium come June 6.

For Lorena Manzo, it’s a world of difference from when she graduated from HRVHS a decade ago.

“When I graduated,” she says, “I could count on two hands the number of Hispanic students who graduated with me.”

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