State flexibility on English classes a boon
Arizona Daily Star
Aug 30, 2008

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Our View: Sunnyside, TUSD making progress in meeting mandate to segregate pupils for four hours; don't face sanctions

Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/255142

 Sometimes doing your best while working to do better is good enough for a while.

That appears to be the situation in the Tucson Unified and Sunnyside Unified school districts as they try to comply with state requirements that schools segregate students who aren't fluent in English for four hours of language instruction each day.

The Arizona Department of Education says that as long as the districts demonstrate that they're making a good-faith effort to meet the requirement, it won't take punitive action against the districts.

This is good news. While we still have reservations about the policy of segregating students for about half the school day, we are encouraged that the Education Department is being realistic about what districts can do with limited resources.

TUSD has been working with the Education Department, said Steve Holmes, a chief academic officer in the district.

"We're not going to just blow (them) off and do what we want to do. We'll move forward as best we can with the resources we have," he told us Wednesday. "We're submitting the plan for every school."

The four-hour requirement is putting a strain on the district. TUSD initially told the state it would need $43.1 million to meet the four-hour mandate, then reduced the request to $6.5 million but it didn't matter, because state superintendent Tom Horne said they should use existing funding designated for desegregation efforts under a federal court order.

TUSD allocated 53 additional teachers this year to meet the English-language requirement, but it's not nearly enough, Holmes said.

"With the 53 teachers, we're barely getting two hours of segregation across the board," he said.

Horne released a statement Thursday announcing that three school districts that gave English-language learners four hours of segregated instruction last year a year before the requirement more than doubled the percentage of kids who had become fluent enough in English to be deemed "proficient" and no longer need the specialized classes.

These results, while limited, are encouraging.

While we aren't convinced that segregating children for four hours a day is the only or necessarily the best way to ensure that they learn English, we don't discount these results.

As with any success in education, the challenge is to replicate it on a large scale while tailoring it to individual schools and kids.

The flexibility the state Education Department is demonstrating is positive.

"We're working with them and know they're doing their best," Horne said in an interview Wednesday.

"If somebody falls short inadvertently and is doing their best, we're not going to make an issue of it.

"As long as they're not being defiant, we're going to work with them," he said.

We applaud this attitude from the Education Department. It doesn't make sense to come down on districts that don't have the personnel or space to fast-track radical changes to how they educate kids.

It makes sense to work with districts to accomplish the goal while respecting the realities on the ground.

While we wish the state had afforded more flexibility in the four-hour requirement, state officials should take advantage of this ramp-up year to take a look at how different approaches can work as the state and districts work toward the same goal of English proficiency.