Representing over 100 languages and countries from around the world, English as second language students gathered at the International Youth Leadership Conference on Friday, Feb. 19. Assembled by students, the Conference was created to give a voice to ESL students in the Portland Public Schools.
Following the initial conference four years ago, the board of ESL directors for PPS wanted to find out, “What is it about the schools in Portland public’s that have helped you—as a student—and have helped your transition into the newness of this educational experience and what’s missing?” said Senior Director of ESL Department for PPS, Veronica Magallanes.
What evolved from that question are the 31 workshops that took place in Smith Memorial Student Union on Friday. Comprised of students and speakers promoting leadership and student empowerment. Many of the ideas are formulated by the planning and thoughtful thinking of students who use the conference for their benefits.
Once the board spoke with the students about their experiences and wants, a youth council was developed. The council includes a voice from every Portland public high school.
Oregon is the only state in the U.S. that hosts IYLC.
According to Magallanes, the immersion experience for ESL students is highly dependent on the educators at public schools. Being a minority in a school can lead students to the overwhelming feeling of isolation. Students who don’t identify as ESL students may not understand and make assumptions about who they are. The need for support from educators is imperative. Educators can bridge the gap for ESL students to feel included and apart of middle and high school experiences.
Because the language barrier between educators and students can be so jarring, the underestimation of knowledge is deducted because the language proficiency is not there. In reality, some schools just aren’t prepared with classes and educators who can pay attention to the needs of ESL students.
On the contrary, educators who went out of their way to help students immerse themselves within the school led to positive experiences. Those educators who went out of their way to take the time to explain things and provide extra support, led students to excel in their new found education.
Magallanes mentioned the lack of consistency throughout the school system that leads to a positive experience.
Keynote speaker: Tamam Waritu
“Being an ESL student is not a deficit but rather an opportunity.”
Motivational youth speaker, Tamam Waritu, shared his message and stories with the students who attended IYLC.
Coming from the impoverished town of Ethiopia, East Africa, Waritu is not only able to relate to the students of the conference, but knows just what it means to face the same obstacles and challenges they are facing today. Waritu was hired to train the youth council in leadership.
Waritu’s sessions focus on leadership, “to help them…understand what leadership is all about…really for them to see themselves as not just the leaders of tomorrow…but rather see themselves as leaders of today,” he said. “What can they do today to make change[s] in themselves and also help others?”
A graduate of Jefferson High School in North Portland, Waritu knows first-hand what it means to be an ESL student in the PPS system. Continuing his education at Portland State for his bachelors then onto Harvard for his masters, Waritu is considered an inspiration to the ESL youth.
“I wish this initiative, this program was replicated throughout the country to empower low income and first generation and ELL [English-language learners] students within all public schools,” Waritu said.
Impressed by the encouragement PPS initiates, Waritu feels honored to be apart of IYLC.
To find out more about PPS ESL programs, checkout their site, here.