Balance struck with Ell
State, schools cut deal on English learners
2008-09 transition year for immersion program MARY BUSTAMANTE
Sunnyside and Tucson unified school districts will only partially comply with a state mandate they've vehemently disagreed with to segregate students not proficient in English into four hours a day of English immersion this school year. They won't get their own way, either.
But instead of taking the issue to court, which appeared a possibility two months ago, state and district officials have settled on 2008-09 as a transition year. That means districts must get as close to the Legislature's mandate of placing non-English speakers into four hours of immersion classes as possible. And the state must make concessions because many districts don't have the resources to fully comply, officials from districts and the state said.
While the state didn't specify sanctions for not complying, educators believe it would have meant at least a 10 percent cut in the $385 the state gives districts for each English-language learner, or ELL, student.
English Language Development, or ELD, programs have been in place for decades, mainly for Spanish speakers who come to the United States not knowing English or who come from households where English is not spoken.
Arizona voters in 2000 passed Proposition 203, a measure banning bilingual education and requiring schools to use mostly English immersion programs - including an intensive one-year English immersion class for nonspeakers. Districts balked, saying a year was not sufficient time to learn a language.
The program, including funding from the Legislature to pay for it, continues to be worked out in federal courts.
Earlier this year, however, the Legislature mandated the daily four hours of English immersion and set aside $40.6 million for the program. But it told districts such as TUSD and Sunnyside that they needed to use federal Title 3 funding they already receive.
The federal funding goes toward some ELD teacher salaries, said Julia Lindberg, director of language acquisition and development at Sunnyside. Districts counter that it's illegal for the state to require that federal money go to the program because the federal government already has earmarked those funds. TUSD has about 6,300 ELL students out of a projected 55,700 students this year. Sunnyside has about 4,800 out of 17,000 total. Students who come to school not knowing any English or who are not proficient in it are given a state test - the Arizona English Language Learners Assessment - to determine if they should be in English proficiency classes.
School districts across the state with many non-English-speaking students submitted immersion alternatives to a state task force, but only a handful were approved. Of them, a couple of plans from districts in Maricopa County may serve as models for integrating some required courses into the immersion plan. The task force didn't rule on TUSD and Sunnyside's very similar "2 plus 2" proposals, which would have given English learners two hours of English immersion and two hours of classes in other subjects such as science and math - with an immersion component.
With many districts saying they can't comply unless they have adequate funding, more classroom space and more teachers qualified to teach immersion, it appears a compromise has been reached. Districts in Arizona will work with the Arizona Department of Education to get as close to compliance as possible this school year, said John A. Stollar, Jr., the department's associate superintendent for accountability.
Despite philosophical differences between educators and legislators on the issue, ADE's Stollar, who met with TUSD and Sunnyside officials in mid-July, said "both have exhibited a cooperative attitude and intend to work with the ADE to fully implement the (state mandate) to the best of their ability."
Stollar said he believes everyone shares the goal of students learning English as quickly as possible. "It is our belief at ADE that a positive attitude is the most important part of the implementation process."
TUSD's assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, Steve Holmes, said his "biggest concern is consistency, school by school and there's no way I'm going to have consistency based on the teachers we have." Holmes said, "If a student is new to the country and new to the English language, he'll be in four hours of language development," adding there would be content from core courses - those needed to graduate - taught in those hours.
The structure at middle schools will be similar, Holmes said, and scheduling will depend on available staff.
At the elementary school level, students with the greatest need to learn English will be in four hours of structured English immersion, he said, "but, school by school, we're still going to need some more flexibility depending on staffing."
The TUSD program "will be based on staff and we'll have to tell ADE how many hours we can do it," Holmes said.
Jeannie Favela, Sunnyside's assistant superintendent for student services, said, "We're just going to have to work with the state to get as close to the state model as we can within our resources. But the ADE understands the teachers we have are the teachers we have and the number of classrooms we have are the number of classrooms we have."
For example, at Challenger Middle School, 100 E. Elvira Road, 12 percent to 15 percent of its enrollment of about 780 are ELL students. But the school has only two teachers to dedicate to the mandate.
Districts know the state considers some issues non-negotiable.
• "They want four hours (of immersion)," Favela said. "They will look at three hours of immersion and then one hour of reading, which can be in a content area, but it still must focus on English instruction."
• "Districts can't mix ELL kids with non-ELL kids, even if they are newly classified kids who have just recently tested out of ELL but still need the support in the classroom," she said.
• The state wants all ELL teachers to have "highly qualified" status, "and I don't think any district has 100 percent highly qualified teachers for those positions," she said.
LOOKING FOR SUCCESS
Favela said Sunnyside educators "want to see where the gaps are, what are our data are telling us, which will lead us to make adjustments to the services, based on how our students are succeeding. "The reason Sunnyside submitted our alternative model is because the district and governing board had concerns about ELL students being segregated for four hours a day for long periods of time," Favela said.
The concern is that it will take more than a year for students to become proficient in English. Extra time would mean hours that they can't spend in required and elective classes. "We would still hope as kids become more proficient, say in reading, then we would be able to reduce immersion by a reading hour, or writing, by a writing hour," she said, adding there are similar provisions in the Phoenix-area models.
Favela said Sunnyside "constantly needs to look at how kids are making progress and what we need to do to move them forward," with possibly even more after-school and weekend tutoring plus summer academies.
At TUSD, "We'll be looking at proficiency levels and AIMS scores to justify fewer than four hours," Holmes said, "and we'll be looking at keeping four hours, but use content in them."
He said he understands that "the more proficient, the more flexibility we will have to have fewer hours or to have the hours be more content-driven. "We know and the state knows we're not going to be 100 percent in compliance. The question is: How close are we going to be able to get?" he said. "We're going to make every good faith effort to implement the four hours." Holmes said he was glad the state was "not looking for us to be moving around staff this late in the game. They'll let us work with existing staff and do it."
Educators are concerned that a four-hour block of English immersion will keep high school upperclassmen from taking enough required classes to graduate on time. "We have a real commitment toward graduation for all kids, and ELL students should not be left behind," Favela said. "Whatever we have to do, we're doing it," she said, noting that includes frequent testing to see that students aren't falling through the cracks.
"All districts need to do that," she said.
Stollar of the state Department of Education said, "If school districts take full advantage of the many options available through the models that have been approved by a state task force, I do not see (being able to graduate on time) as a problem at all."
Favela said it will be up to teachers in immersion classes that include content in other courses to decide if the students have learned enough to get a credit in those courses. "The state is not going to mandate how credit is to be awarded," she said. "We need to make sure ELL students have the same positive opportunities to be an integral part of their school as any other student," she said. "We don't have a beef about them learning English, but we don't want them left behind for other reasons."