Schools struggle to pay for English-learner program
Arizona Republic
Aug 10, 2008

 

by Ray Parker - Aug. 10, 2008 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic

Arizona public schools have struggled with how to pay for a new state program teaching immigrant students English, especially since districts requested around $300 million but received only $40 million.

At Arizona's largest district, with 73,000 students, for example, Mesa Public Schools administrators received $1.8 million in state money for the new English-learner program, but they expect to spend about $7 million.

It meant digging to find another $5.2 million out of a slim budget, which already had to be cut by $13 million. More than 100 district positions were left unfilled, including associate superintendent and school librarians.

This school year, 140,000 Arizona students not proficient in English will be given four hours a day of language instruction. That is slightly more than 10 percent of Arizona's 1 million public-school children in about 330 districts and charter schools.

Arizona is under a court order to improve instruction to children struggling to learn English.

The new English-learner program calls for:


  Four hours per day of English instruction in speaking, listening, grammar, reading and writing.


  English-learner students must be kept out of mainstream classes during those four hours.


  Students must be grouped according to four levels of English proficiency.


  Classes will be taught by highly qualified teachers or those certified to teach English as a second language.

Before the new program, many districts would put English-learner students in mainstream classrooms for the majority of the school day, while providing about 30 minutes of "pull-out" English instruction.

State-education officials said students could spend six or seven years in the old program before becoming proficient in English, while the new model means a much shorter track for learning English: about a year, especially for elementary students.

Tom Horne, state superintendent of public instruction, said: "They'll learn English quickly and then be able to compete with other (mainstream) kids in academics."

State funds fall short

For months, Arizona administrators have complained about the state's new English-language-learner funding.

Chris Thomas, president of the Madison School District school board, was among those frustrated by the state's $40 million for the new program, arguing it's too small and shortchanges some districts that have many English learners, while giving a windfall to others.

District administrators had originally requested $275 million to $300 million for the program.

At Chandler Unified School District, officials expect to spend $3 million on the new program, while receiving $1.6 million from the state.

Officials said they didn't expect class sizes to increase, but that won't be known until the school year gets under way.

The new program means changing classroom logistics for 3,500 English learners in the 35,000-student district.

It means hiring about 36 new teachers for English learners.

"This is the biggest change mandated from the state in my memory," said Susan Eissinger, associate superintendent for instruction. "We believe it's going to cost more than the allocation (from the state)."

At the Buckeye Union High School District, officials originally requested $600,000, which included construction money for additional classrooms at Buckeye Union High, where classrooms already were at capacity.

The district received $40,000. It covers hiring one English-language teacher, mileage reimbursement for travel between campuses, partial funding to hire substitute teachers to cover staff training, and computer-software licenses.

Adapting program to kids

The Legislature passed the 2006 law to try to resolve a 1994 lawsuit challenging Arizona's English-learner programs as violating federal mandates for equal opportunities in education.

The law called for a nine-member committee called the Arizona English Language Learners Task Force, which has created the new curriculum, called English Language Development models.

Districts submitted estimated budgets to the state about the cost of starting the new program, and some even retooled their expenses to align their cost with the state model.

"We were rejected several times," Thomas said. "We had to cut down a number of our costs."

Chandler Unified officials said the state money would cover hiring new ELL teachers.

But Eissinger said the district submitted additional expenses, such as for new course materials along with more training for current educators. The state did not cover those costs.

And there were other complications.

Districts sought alternatives to the state's English-learner teaching mandate. So far, the task force has approved three alternative models, which can be used by other districts under similar circumstances:


  The Higley Unified School District alternative: If there are fewer than 20 English learners in a three-grade span, such as grades K-2, then educators can use an individual language plan for those students.


  The Glendale Union High School District alternative: If English learners who are juniors and seniors pass the state language test at the "intermediate" level and are on track for graduation, then those students can spend fewer hours per day in the English-learner program.


  The Phoenix Union High School District alternative: When teaching the reading portion of the English-learner program, educators can use other academic material, such as history or social studies.

Chandler educator Tim Brethauer teaches an English-learner summer-school program at Willis Junior High.

He said the new program should conform to student needs.

"It should be based on the individual and choice," Brethauer said. "One size does not fit all."

Humberto Rosales, 17, has spent the past two years in the English-learner program and needed the summer-school credit to graduate his coming year at Chandler High, when he'll be enrolled in regular English classes.

"A lot depends on the teachers," he said. "I think (the new program) is OK if they don't speak English at all. It depends on the student."