English mandates are found challenging
Arizona Daily Star
April 24, 2008

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Audit notes hurdles for school districts, cites oversight woes

By Rhonda Bodfield

Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/sn/education/235820 

A state audit released Wednesday found that school districts will have to make big changes to comply with new requirements for teaching the state's 138,000 students who aren't proficient in English.

School officials, particularly those in rural areas, told auditors that they lacked the space and staffing to comply with the new mandates, which kick in after students return from summer break and which require four hours a day of separate instruction to help English learners develop English skills.

The state Auditor General's Office found that only three of 18 sampled districts met the four-hour requirement, but even then, only for a portion of students. More than half of the students in 2007 were simply mainstreamed into English-speaking classrooms.

The audit also found problems with oversight. The Arizona Department of Education, it determined, too often collects unreliable data or none at all from districts about their programs and student populations. The state doesn't even have a clear number for how many such students there are and the time they're in the programs.

For example, the state was paying for some students to be in the programs even though they didn't have assessments showing they should be enrolled and in some cases, it was paying for students whose test scores showed they already were proficient in English.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne said he wasn't surprised by the findings, but they did confirm to him that past practice was failing students who spoke another primary language, more than 80 percent of whom spoke Spanish.

The findings showed that only 7 percent of the 8,700 sampled students became fully proficient in English at the end of 2007. And most of those had taken at least two years to get there. Horne said that level of reclassification was "unacceptable," which is why the new mandate sets a goal of one year.

"Students who come to school not knowing English have a moral right to know English as soon as possible," he said. "What's happened in the past is scandalous."

As far as district complaints, Horne noted that $40 million in extra funding was approved to comply with the new mandate a number school officials decry as vastly inadequate, especially because some districts are cut out of the funds altogether. He said schools with space issues need to take the concerns to the state agency that funds new schools.

Horne agreed that data management remained a problem, in part because of insufficient funding, but hopes to have the kinks worked out by next year.

Calvin Baker, superintendent of the Vail School District, concurred with other district officials who are concerned about the timeline and philosophy of the new requirement. His schools are in an even more uncomfortable place because classes start there in mid-July.

"We're going to do the best that we can, and that's all we can do," he said. "We can't wave a magic wand and have everything in place."

Aside from the logistics meeting the mandate will require 13 more teachers, and classroom space continues to be a problem Baker doesn't like the idea of isolating non-English speakers from their peers.

"We've worked very hard in this country against segregation and we've made great progress, and this is a step backward," he said. "By the time a student is out of an elementary classroom for four hours, there's not much of the day left."

Complicating the timeline is that funding is still in flux. Tim Hogan, an attorney representing parents who sued the state over how their children were being educated, said he'll file a brief next week to argue that the $40 million is inadequate.

With big districts such as the Tucson Unified School District and the Phoenix Union High School District getting no new money despite large populations of English learners, "that's totally irrational," he said.

How long it will take U.S. District Judge Raner Collins, who is hearing the suit in Tucson, to rule is unclear.

In the meantime, districts can get waivers from the four-hour requirement if alternative plans are accepted. So far, 28 districts have turned in alternative models. Two have been accepted.

TUSD will ask the state in May to let it pull students out for two hours and then put them into regular classrooms for other subjects, with assurance they'll continue working on language skills in the other classes.

The timeline is way too compressed, said TUSD Assistant Superintendent Steve Holmes. If the waiver is not approved, it will be hard to make the required adjustments during the summer, he said.

"In some cases, we don't have a lot of options. Where are we supposed to teach students? In the grass? In the parking lots?"

The state's data problems are affecting the districts adversely, he said. Sometimes the districts get back test results so late that the students are in limbo and the district loses out on pivotal funding to educate them.

The Marana Unified School District is awaiting word on whether its alternative will get the nod, after arguing there are too few English learners in some schools to make the new requirements cost-effective. It is asking that kindergarten students be in a mainstream environment for up to three of the four hours, while elementary students would get two hours in a mainstream classroom.

Nogales Unified School District Superintendent Guillermo Zamudio said students could suffer if his alternative is not approved. Because the district is one of those not slated for any new funding, if it has to pull out the English speakers, it will mean some schools will have to cluster their English speakers together in massive class sizes of up to 56 students.

But, he said, "we'll manage."

"We'll scramble and do what we have to do because we don't want to be out of compliance with the law."

● Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at 573-4118 or at rbodfield@azstarnet.com.