Half of the students in the Phoenix Union High School
District go home to families who speak Spanish, Serbo-Croatian, Arabic or any
of 30 other languages.
By law, each of them must be tested to see if they speak English well enough
to function in school. And if they don't, they are placed in intensive English
classes. State law urges that students not spend more than a year in those
The concept is black and white, and lawmakers want quantifiable test scores,
hard numbers that show the students' progress and how time and money are
The reality is gray because language is a slippery thing to measure.
But that's what they try to do at the Phoenix Union High School District
Welcome Center, behind the Central High School football field off Seventh
Every eighth-grader with a second-language experience from the 65 schools that
feed into the district is evaluated and tracked through this building, as is
every transfer student who walks in the front door here or at a second Welcome
Center at Cesar Chavez High School.
Seventy-one percent of the students in the district's 10 high schools and
three alternative programs are Hispanic.
Nearly 12,000 students, half of the district's student body, come from
households where Spanish is spoken.
Although they all must be tested, only 20 percent need placement in an English
Besides Spanish, they may speak anything from Apache to Arabic, Vietnamese to
"It's a very diverse group," said Joan Mason, who oversees curriculum for the
district's English Language Learners, or ELLs. "We have kids who have never
been in school before."
The students come from every imaginable social and economic level. Some have
solid academic foundations. Others, even as teenagers, have never been in a
classroom. Each needs to be placed in the appropriate class.
There are sophisticated Mexicans from urban academies and rural Mexicans from
villages without schools, Bosnians who speak two languages other than English.
Africans who don't score well on aural tests because they are accustomed to
the vowels and consonants of British pronunciation. Somalis who arrive as
teenagers but have never been in a school and must learn alphabets and basic
Placing those students is a challenge.
When students arrive at the center, evaluators administer one of the four
standard exams approved by the state Department of Education. The tests
measure a student's oral, writing and reading abilities in English.
The vast majority of new students speak Spanish, and so do the staffers. They
chat with the parents in Spanish. They interview the students, gauge their
level of education and test their knowledge of subject areas and how well they
write in Spanish.
"The real tattletale is the writing," Welcome Center Director Priscilla
Then the students are slotted into various language-learning categories -
beginning, intermediate, advanced, transitional, regular - and at appropriate
Most fall into the regular category of the mainstream student population, or
transitional, meaning they're close to functioning in English.
On a recent morning, 18-year-old Mario Quiñones from Nogales, Sonora,
struggled through the placement test. Although he studied English for two
years in Nogales, he speaks hardly a word. In fact, he's generally quiet.
His mother, Adriana Beltran, speaks for him, in Spanish only.
"There are hardly any school opportunities for him there," she said.
He is entering 10th grade at Alhambra High School. His mother would like him
to learn English, go to college, have a career, "something he'd like," she
Mario almost winced at the long road ahead. At his age, it is hard to learn a
second language, hard to start over in school.
"¡Qué Díos le ayude!" his mother said. "May God help him!"
Maria Ledesma, 16, came from Querétero, Mexico, the day before. Her English
sounds native because she attended the second through eighth grades in
A year ago, her mother thought she was getting into too much trouble with
friends, so she sent her to live with an aunt in Mexico, where she attended
Now that she is returning to Trevor Browne High School, the law says she has
to be evaluated in English because she speaks Spanish at home.
"I just want to be in the normal regular class," she said.
Maria experienced language shock during her year in a Mexican high school.
Her mother speaks only Spanish, but Maria found that talking to Mom and doing
schoolwork in Spanish were two different things. She foundered in math and
literature classes, even though Spanish was her first language.
"It was harder there," she said, "because I don't know a lot of Spanish, I
just know a little bit."
Learning is difficult
Language, at its simplest level, is a framework that allows us to sort and
arrange time and place; who, what and where; questions and answers. The
framework varies from language to language and culture to culture.
Then there are thousands of interchangeable parts, and second-language
learners rarely learn them all. A missionary learns the language parts that
explain the Bible, the college student the parts that describe poetry, but
neither necessarily learns the words and expressions needed to change a tire.
The immigrant learns to order a meal and work his job but not necessarily to
understand humor or irony or how to fill out a government form.
Bilingual children may have good conversational skills in two languages but
not the skills to do math or write a persuasive essay.
"They might learn playground conversational English in a year," Mason said,
"But to do this challenging academic work in English just takes a lot longer.
The whole philosophy is 'get 'em in and get 'em out' as soon as possible."
Contact the reporter at (602) 444-8994.