SOLUTIONS: Ontario schools overcome the pandemic to set English learners up for success

Ashely Anahitzy Vega Maldonado, 13, stands with a portrait she painted of a ballet dancer. The Ontario Middle School student loves to paint and dance, and dreams of becoming an actress and model when she grows up. (Liliana Frankel/The Enterprise)

ONTARIO – Ashely Anahitzy Vega Maldonado arrived from her small home town in Mexico in 2017 to enter fourth grade at Aiken Elementary School.

She came to join her parents, who arrived in Malheur County years earlier to work in a dairy in Ontario. 

Although Ashely had always been shy – “since babyhood,” said her mother, Mariana Maldonado – at Aiken she had extra difficulty making friends. 

Her school in Mexico had given English classes, but nothing intensive, and now she was immersed in the language for the first time.

Everything was different, even the things that Maldonado thought should have been the same, like the multiplication tables she encountered that were written differently from in Mexico.

“I told them that she knows it, it’s just that she knows it Mexican style,” Maldonado recalled. 

“It makes your head spin, to come with one kind of learning and see another.” 

Ashely, though, landed in a school district determined to help students like her succeed. The Ontario School District is now heralded for that work, and the innovative spirit which inspired it has been called on to help English learners through the tumult of the pandemic.

Teachers, counselors and administrators in recent months have focused first on the daily needs of all their students across the district. They know it is the only hope they have of recovering lost ground in the classroom.


New funds hone focus

In Ontario, school administrators set to work in 2017 – the year Ashely arrived – using extra state funding aimed at improving outcomes for students who are learning English. 

The federal government guarantees English learners the right to receive the support they need to succeed in school. In districts like Ontario, where English learners make up a high percentage of the student body, protecting this right becomes a special logistical challenge. 

The district’s English language program has 334 students, about 14% of the student body, and many English learners are also part of Ontario’s Migrant Education Program. That encompasses about a third of the student body. 

Students are eligible for the migrant program if their families changed school districts at any time in the past three years for agricultural work. The district is 62% Hispanic, and many English learners are born in the United States to immigrant parents. Others, like Ashely, may be immigrants themselves. 

Still others are from refugee families drawn to Ontario by more affordable housing options than coastal cities like Portland and San Diego. Most English learners speak Spanish as their native language, but other students also speak Somali and Arabic. 

The language challenge is compounded by high poverty in Ontario. All students in the district receive free breakfast and lunch.

Still, Ontario’s focus on the English learners paid off, according to state data. High school graduation rates for English learners improved from 48% in 2010 to a peak of 81% in 2018. The district’s rate is consistently higher than the state average. 

Teachers and administrators identify multiple keys to their success. One is a school culture that values connectedness to one another and to the community. Then there is the intentional approach to teaching, making language a central part of all subjects. Teachers now shape their lessons with that objective.

That shift in teaching required hours of training for 175 teachers and other staffers in the district. They learned to teach in a more engaging way that made learning language more active.

“It’s true that you can learn by listening, but you don’t really want a classroom where the teacher’s doing all the talking and students are just listening,” explained Steve Wyborney, the district math coach. “The very act of expressing language is an act of thinking.” 

Ontario administrators characterize these lessons as crucial shifts that the district made to better serve English learners. The adjustments sparked new compassion for the struggles that English learners face in the classroom while enabling teachers to incorporate language techniques into their lessons regardless of subject.  

Ontario is recognized as a leader in English language development by the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators. 

“As other districts in the state grow in numbers, in percentages (of English learners), we look to (Ontario) to learn what it would look like to have a majority-minority population,” said Colin Cameron, the group’s director of professional learning. “They’ve worked really hard to improve attendance and graduation rates, and we look to them to understand how that has happened. They’re a good resource for other districts.” 

That all was disrupted when Covid hit Malheur County a year ago.


Last year, Ashely was on the cheerleading squad and had lots of chances to practice her English. This year, with Covid, there hasn’t been cheerleading. (Liliana Frankel/The Enterprise)

Covid adds challenges

The pandemic presented a fundamental challenge for English learners. Isolation in the early days tucked students away from the immersion environments where previously they had daily chances to practice their English. 

But before district staff could begin to tackle the learning loss that the pandemic implied, they faced other concerns. In the absence of a normal school day, administrators couldn’t take for granted that their students could connect to the internet or even get three meals.

That’s why when schools shut down, delivering meals to students took precedence, said Anabel Ortiz Chavolla, Ontario’s director of federal programs. 

“We knew that if we just had (pick-up) sites, our students wouldn’t be able to come, because they have parents that are working, or they may not have cars,” she said. “So we all took a section of the city and we loaded our vehicles and we followed the bus routes.”

As the pandemic wore on, Ontario developed a more streamlined system for bus drivers to deliver meals, allowing administrators like Ortiz Chavolla to return to their jobs. The service continued during the summer and through school breaks. 

Now that some students are back in school full time, a week’s worth of meals is delivered every Friday to those still at home. 

Administrators also realized that many of their students lived in homes where there was no computer and no internet – either because the family wasn’t paying for the service, or because the service didn’t extend to the most remote parts of the district.

To solve that problem, Ontario administrators used grant funding to buy Chromebooks for all students. An effort to buy cable service for families without an existing internet connection followed. And where cable didn’t reach, the district contracted with a satellite service. 

In places where cable speed was too slow for school work, the district provided hotspots – one for each sibling in the family who needed to stream their classes. 

For Ashely, a faltering internet connection can make it difficult to clearly hear lessons. While a most students at Ontario Middle School, where she is now in eighth grade, have gone back for in-person instruction, Ashely and her parents decided that she would continue to learn online because her asthma makes her vulnerable to Covid. 

“The teachers sometimes speak quickly, and I don’t understand them much,” she said in an interview. “The internet has been really slow, and it trips up frequently.”

This is important context for Xochitl Fuhriman-Ebert, the English language development teacher who sees Ashely every other day online for class. 

“Sometimes as a teacher, you think, ‘Ugh, they hung up on me!’” she said. “But it’s not that. Their computer will have turned off, or kicked them out of the program.”


Anabel Ortiz Chavolla, the director of federal programs for Ontario School District, outside the district building. (Liliana Frankel/The Enterprise)

Online lessons add up

Ontario eventually got nearly all students functioning online, but the rollout was slow and the wait often agonizing, with students accessing class through their phones or not at all. 

“We had students that didn’t participate in that last trimester from March till the end of the school year,” Fuhriman-Ebert said. “We talked to them by phone every week and documented who we talked to: parent, child, mother, whoever. We were not teaching anything new. We were doing reviews, how to use Google Meets. That’s what’s been at the forefront during the pandemic.”

There were other losses too, smaller but still painful. 

For equity reasons, students don’t have to turn on their cameras to display themselves while attending virtual class. But Fuhriman-Ebert is a “hand person.” She wears bright red lipstick every day so that her students can see her mouth clearly and hear the words. 

For months, she was the sole visual element online, except during the few moments at the open and close when students would turn on their cameras to say hello and goodbye. 

Teaching to a screen of static icons was tough, she said, and she lost the chance to read her students’ reactions, to gauge via their expressions whether they were understanding the material. 

As the district moved to larger classes during the pandemic, students got less time to speak.

“It’s been a challenge for all the teachers with students who learn more visually or by speaking,” said Fuhriman-Ebert. “If they struggle to write, then it’s not necessarily possible to hear their responses the way it was before, and not because the teachers don’t want to, but because the classes are so large.”

Ashely is one of those students who struggles to write and would much rather speak. 

She said that if she is asked to type a response in the Zoom chat, “I just turn my microphone on and say it.”

But Fuhriman-Ebert said she values Ashely’s participation, even when it breaks with the format of class. 

“Ashely has that initiative to learn,” Fuhriman-Ebert said. “Last year we really saw that – if she didn’t know something, she’d ask, ‘Can I respond to this in Spanish?’ because she wanted us to know what she was thinking.”

Teaching wasn’t the only element to shift at school. The pandemic presented teachers and administrators with more social challenges than they typically encounter with students.

“Stress comes from different places: from a parent losing their job, from families doubling up a few to a house. In my mind a successful English language development student would be a student that has very little stress,” said Ortiz Chavolla. “Also, making sure that students feel safe, and that students don’t have that worry of food insecurity. I know that first we have to take care of the wellbeing of the student, and then take care of their learning.” 

“I wouldn’t have told you that a year ago,” she added.


Xochitl Fuhriman-Ebert surveys the array of screens which has come to dominate her desk at Ontario Middle School. (The Enterprise/Liliana Frankel)

A sense of belonging

Lisa Longoria, principal of Ontario Middle School, said that “It is vital to understand that students need to feel a sense of belonging within our school community. They need to know that we care about them as individuals before we can expect them to care about academics.”

This shift, from assessing the learning students are doing to monitoring their wellbeing, means Ontario teachers and staff prioritize relationships. 

Every teacher in the district has a Google Voice number to text and call with students and families. For parents who don’t speak English or Spanish, there’s the Language Line, an interpretation service that allows teachers to communicate with parents in real time. And like many teachers at Ontario, Fuhriman-Ebert keeps a rigorous schedule of home visits to her students, attempting to see each family with regularity for a cup of tea or a long chat. 

“Relationships are essential, because once you get to know the family and they get to know you, then all kinds of doors open,” said Ortiz Chavolla. “They might disclose needs that they may have that they wouldn’t have told you otherwise.”

These relationships have revealed issues that might have stayed buried.  

Students, for instance, were unused to spending so much unsupervised time on the computer. Fuhriman-Ebert learned her students sometimes were having a hard time keeping up because they couldn’t type fast enough. 

And Ortiz Chavolla discovered that some English learners found it hard to use the trackpad on their Chromebooks. She provided them a mouse instead.

Students at the elementary and middle schools resumed normal classwork in February while the high school for now provides only a limited number of students in-school access.

Meantime, teachers continue to adapt and find ways to push ahead with the success seen in the past with getting English learners to graduate.

Ashely said her teachers, for instance, try to help her online even while managing their in-person classes. 

“To me, it is a shining moment for Ashely that she’s still really concerned about her academics,” said Fuhriman-Ebert. “In spite of her challenges with being dropped or having slow internet, she’s still here. She comes to class every day and she asks for help.”

Ashely’s mother said that she is proud of her daughter’s perseverance.

“I see that by herself she’s trying to give it her all, even when she gets frustrated,” said Maldonado. “Learning English would open doors for her in the working world, to have a better future.”

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.


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