Sahuarita rebuffs state on ELL
Arizona schools chief is 'shocked' by decision on English immersion
Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/240602
Forced to choose between enforcing a state law and possibly violating students' civil rights, the Sahuarita Unified School District has decided to ignore state orders to place middle and high school students in four-hour English-immersion classes.
The move "shocked" Arizona's education chief and could mean another legal hurdle for the state's latest plan on how to best teach students who are not proficient in English.
Sahuarita's move comes just months before Arizona school districts must implement a 2006 state mandate that requires four-hour instruction blocks for English-language learners.
Already under the lens of federal education officials, the Sahuarita district faces a question that every public school in Arizona must answer: Will English-language learners get an equal education if they're forced to spend four hours a day in a language class?
Barbara Smith, Sahuarita's director of student services, consulted with federal officials in the Office for Civil Rights about the dilemma in implementing the state mandate. Federal officials in Denver sought advice from peers in Washington, D.C. Their conclusion, Smith said, is not to follow it.
"It is discriminatory, especially at high schools, where you prevent students from taking the same number of classes, preventing them from graduating in four years," Smith said.
Tom Horne, Arizona superintendent of public instruction, sees it differently. He said he was "shocked" and disturbed that a school district would defy state law. Horne threatened possible consequences.
"Any administrator who participates in open defiance of a state law would be subject to a complaint against his or her certificate for unprofessional conduct," he said.
Horne also questioned the validity of the federal advice.
"I doubt very strongly that anyone with any authority came to such an idiotic conclusion," he said. "I doubt this is a final decision from the Office for Civil Rights."
Sahuarita's stance is of interest to other districts, said Steve Holmes, Tucson Unified School District assistant superintendent for teaching and learning.
"They could set some type of precedent for the state if word gets out," he said.
Like Sahuarita, TUSD sought federal advice on the state plan. Holmes was told that as long as English-language learners receive remediation, or support to catch up on the lessons taught elsewhere during English classes, the state plan is legal.
But leaving regular teaching up to remediation could lead to problems, he said.
"If you don't give them equal access to all the standards, I think it's a civil-rights violation," Holmes said. "But since it hasn't happened, since there is no complaint, then it's no harm, no foul."
About 8,000 English-language learners are enrolled in TUSD.
Sahuarita's policy will affect about 50 middle school and high school students. There are nearly twice as many English-language learners in Sahuarita elementary schools, Smith said. Those students will receive four-hour English instruction, though it will be integrated into their regular day, she added.
"We're not defying anyone. We're not slamming anyone," Smith said. "We're doing what's best for the kids."
Federal officials became entangled with Sahuarita in 2002 after an employee complained that the district wasn't providing adequate materials to teach English-language learners, Smith said. Since then, the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education has monitored the district's English-language-learner instruction.
The two layers of oversight put Sahuarita between a rock and a hard place, Assistant Superintendent Manuel Valenzuela said.
"The feds are telling us it's illegal, it's discriminatory. The state is saying do it," he said. "We made the most logical and sound decision we could make based on all the facts."
In 2000, the state was ordered to devise a plan to adequately teach English to students who arrive at school speaking other languages. Six years later, the mandate, under House Bill 2064, was passed. The legal fight all stems from a lawsuit filed in 1992 by a Nogales, Ariz., family.
For eight years, state and district officials have not only battled over what teaching model to implement, but also how much funding should go to English-language instruction.
Sahuarita stands to gain about $90,000 under the current state formula, while TUSD won't receive any money.
School officials have contended the classes will cost more than $270 million statewide, but Horne said it should cost less than $20 million, provided school districts use federal funds to comply with the mandate. However, that idea has been rejected by a federal trial judge and an appellate court.
In April, the state Senate approved spending an additional $40.6 million to provide ELL instruction in the next school year.
TUSD and the Sunnyside Unified School District have submitted alternative instruction plans to replace the four-hour block. State approval is pending.
Sunnyside has almost 4,000 ELL students and will receive no additional funds from the state for its program. It already receives about $2 million.
Schools and districts with relatively low numbers of ELL students are allowed to use individual English programs that still meet the four-hours-a-day requirement, instead of creating whole classes devoted to language instruction. Districts also can mix both approaches.
Most local school districts plan to implement one form of the state's mandate. Other than Sunnyside and TUSD, most local districts will receive funds.
Concerns remain, despite acceptance of the state law.
Amphitheater Public Schools Superintendent Vicki Balentine expressed concern about separating ELL students from the general population. There may be a potential for segregation-related problems, she said.
The district has 1,700 ELL students and anticipates getting $59,000 in state ELL funding.
"Frankly, it's the law, and we know that what we are doing currently is not achieving any stellar results, so this plan is worth a try," she said.
● Star reporters Andrea Rivera and Danielle Sottosanti contributed to this story. ● Contact reporter George B. Sánchez at 573-4195 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Upon enrolling students in Arizona public schools, parents are asked if their children speak a primary language other than English at home.
If the answer is yes, students, regardless of grade level, are tested for English proficiency.
If students aren't proficient, they're classified as English-language learners.
About 135,000 students in Arizona are classified as English-language learners, state officials say.