Legal trouble ahead?
When students return to school this month, many of their grade levels will be separated by language ability.
Students who speak English will go in one classroom; those who don't, to another. The non-English-speakers will stay in those specialized classrooms, where they will receive an intense four hours of English training, until they can pass the state's language exam.
It's all part of the state's new plan to get students who don't speak English to learn the language more quickly. State education officials say it can be done in a year.
The new rule is a result of a bill passed in 2006 that required the state to create a more uniform method of instructing its English learners. The bill established a task force charged with adopting a model for English Language Learning instruction, and it chose a method that mandates four hours of English each day, which includes reading, grammar, writing and vocabulary and conversational skills.
The plan is raising the eyebrows of many education experts across the country. One school district, Sahuarita Unified, near Tucson, even rejected the plan for most of its elementary school students, saying it worried the Office of Civil Rights would find it discriminatory.
"There is a lot of discussion around the country that this is ripe for a lawsuit because it really sounds like what Arizona is doing is defying Lao v. Nickels," said Patricia Gándara, an education professor and co-director of The Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, referring to a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court case. "In conversation around the country, there is discussion that this may be another lawsuit coming down the pipe for Arizona because that is exactly what Lao was about. The kids have to get access to the regular curriculum, and if they're getting four hours a day separated, just learning English in various ways, it's not clear they will be able to access the regular curriculum."
Arizona State University Professor Jeff McSwan has also voiced concerns about the program, specifically that the models were based on flawed interpretations of research. He also said much of the focus is on overt language instruction, such as drilling verb tenses, instead of learning the language in a more natural setting.
"Our state is enacting educational policy not based on consideration for what is the best, most effective way of teaching kids," McSwan said. "Our state is enacting educational policy based on ideological commitments to notions that are entirely unrelated to education. They're related to immigration, and anxiety about the predominance of other languages in our society."
State schools chief Tom Horne disagrees. "I think within two years, you'll see a dramatically higher rate of students being classified as knowing English, this will be a tremendous benefit for them," he said. "The reclassification rate is at 13 percent now, and I consider that to be scandalously low, so we're hoping for a dramatic increase."
Horne also brushed aside concerns over possible civil rights violations. "There's a court case that says it is not segregation for a school to temporarily, for educational purposes, put them in a different classroom. That's the only way to make them successful. You don't make them successful by putting them in a class where they have no idea what's going on because they can't speak English," Horne said.
This summer, East Valley school districts have been working to quickly find the classroom space, teachers and curriculum for the new programs, in addition to figuring out which children should go in which classrooms.
In the Tempe Elementary School District, which starts classes today, roughly one-quarter of students - about 3,250 - are English language learners, said Sylvia Gonzales, director of English Language Learning. She expects a bit of reshuffling classes as new students who haven't yet registered show up this week, and teachers need to figure out which classrooms to place them in, she said.
A BIG SHIFT
For the Tempe Elementary district, the move to place non-English speakers together is a big shift. In the 1970s, the district was told by the Office of Civil Rights that it should try to spread out its Spanish speakers to different schools and classrooms.
"We were told we should make sure students weren't isolated in schools, so we spread them out," Gonzales said. "Now, they are saying it's OK to group by language."
The Chandler Unified School District, which started classes last week, had to hire 27 new teachers to fulfill the new mandate, said Susan Eissinger, associate superintendent for instructional services.
There are roughly 3,500 ELL students in the Chandler district.
In Chandler, as in many other districts, officials found that after four hours of English and lunch, there's little time to teach other subject areas. Students will still get math class, though, she said.
"We'll try to bring in some social studies and science in the vocabulary," she said.
It's a concern shared by Carolyn Repp, the Scottsdale Unified School District's director of English Immersion Studies.
"What we're most worried about with our high school students, they're going to be out of the content classrooms, so they're not going to be able to graduate in four years," Repp said.
Scottsdale is working on plans to help students make up courses they miss while they're in ELL classrooms, including working with teachers before school and completing online courses with Pinnacle Online.
"We'll figure out how we can help students," Repp said. "Do we know all the ways yet? No, this is brand new."
Policy debates aside, however, East Valley school districts are moving ahead with plans, and many educators have expressed hope that their students will be able to learn English more quickly now than in the past.
At Galveston Elementary School in Chandler, where classes started last week, veteran teacher Norma Meza is already working toward that goal.
The number of the specialized classes there ranges from four out of six in kindergarten to just one out of five classrooms in sixth grade.
In Meza’s first-grade classroom, none of the 17 students can speak English proficiently.
She sits in front of an easel with the word “family” written on it, and pictures with the words for different relatives written below. Students tell about their families, then turn to teach other and converse.
It’s a vocabulary lesson, Meza said, in keeping with the state mandate — but it’s also one she’s always done with her classes before, because it helps her learn about her students.
Devon Isherwood, principal at Mesa’s Eisenhower Elementary School, said she doesn’t believe children who are in the non-English speaker classrooms will notice much of a difference.
“I think at schools where there is a high minority population, it won’t stand out because the classes that are (non-ELL) will have a lot of the same ethnic makeup of kids in there, too,” Isherwood said. “Now, in a school where they don’t have as many, it might be a different story. But here, I don’t foresee any issues with that. And if there is, we’ll have to do something about it. We’ll be keeping an eye on it.”