Districts have better plan on English learners
Arizona Daily Star
June 10, 2008

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Our view: State's immersion plan would isolate students, put them behind peers

Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/sn/education/242952

The debate over how to best ensure that students who don't know English become fluent in reading, writing and comprehension has pitted several local school districts against the Arizona Department of Education.

The crux of the battle is a state requirement, supported by state superintendent Tom Horne, that students who are not proficient in English be segregated for four hours per day for intensive English instruction beginning next school year.

Tucson Unified, Sunnyside Unified and Sahuarita Unified have filed plans with the state proposing alternates to the four-hour daily requirement.

Among the reasons, they say, is because pulling kids out of regular classes for four hours each day will make it impossible for them to earn the credits needed to graduate, and it will also cut into students' time in core academic classes and make it difficult to pass the AIMS test, another graduation requirement.

TUSD and Sunnyside are proposing a two-plus-two format, where students study English for two hours and then spend two hours learning English while focusing on academic content. The students would also take electives, like fine arts, and other classes.

We believe the school districts are in the right. We encourage the state Department of Education to accept these proposals.

The state's four-hour requirement is unrealistic, especially in combination with other requirements for graduation.

Arizona schools face a difficult task: How to make sure kids who arrive at school speaking a language other than English and it is important to note that they're not all Spanish speakers, either learn English along with math, history, science, social studies and all of the other things necessary to be educated.

It's a question of what should come first: Are students wasting time in academic classes if they can't understand the content, or are they missing valuable class time when they could be learning both English and the academic material? Pulling students from academic classes puts them behind in the subject material, but if they don't understand it because of limited English skills, does that matter?

The answer, as is common with most educational questions, is under debate.

Horne and his department say students are best served by being segregated for half of the school day. But that theory isn't shared by every educator.

While it's easy to speak in generalities about how students learn best, we must remember that each student is an individual person and education is the ultimate individual endeavor. There is no single approach that will work for every student.

With this in mind, we must look at what we know: the class of 2012 (which begins high school this August) must accrue 20 credits to graduate from high school. The class of 2013 must have 22 credits. Students must also pass the reading, writing and math parts of the standardized AIMS test to graduate.

Fitting four hours of English instruction into a high-school schedule will likely put students behind.

It makes more sense to follow the two-plus-two proposal because it gives the best of both: intensive language instruction and academic content.

The four-hour rule also presents real practical obstacles, especially because some districts, including TUSD, must pay for the instruction and related costs within their existing budgets.

Schools must find classrooms to hold these special segregated classes, they must allot teachers to lead them and figure out ways to keep the students from becoming isolated from the general school population.

Students learning a language should be integrated into the larger school as much as possible, giving them opportunities to use their developing skills.

We believe the local schools know best what will work for their students and their situations. We encourage Horne and the state Education Department to follow and support their lead.