Englishfluency rules worry some critics
Arizona Republic
March 16, 2008


With 4 hours a day spent on language development, some fear kids will lag in areas such as math, science

Emily Gersema

School officials fear that the estimated 131,000 Arizona students learning English will be at a greater risk of dropping out or taking longer than usual to graduate because of new state requirements for language development.

Under the requirements adopted last year by the Arizona English Language Learners Task Force, students who aren't fluent in English will spend four hours a day on language development. Their hours could be reduced as they improve and they'll be sent to the mainstream classroom once they have successfully passed the Arizona's English Language Learner Assessment, a language test.

Most of Arizona high schools operate on a six-hour class day, so the new requirement means the students deemed "English-language learners" will spend all but two periods of their school day focused on learning only English - possibly delaying their completion of required credits in areas such as history, math and science.

"The question is: Are they going to get done in four years?" asked Ken James, executive director of the educational services for Gilbert Public Schools. The district has about 38,500 students - 1,000 of whom are ELLs.

An ELL student can earn an English credit while in the language-development program and perhaps some electives.

But that student will likely lag behind mainstream classmates who can advance through courses and graduate without delay.

Salvador Gabaldon, the language-acquisition coordinator for Tucson Unified School District, said educating a student can cost up to $6,000 a year.

A delay in graduation, he says, "is an expense I don't think the state took into consideration."

The Tucson district has 8,000 ELLs, Gabaldon said.

Smaller districts are worried, too.

Higley Unified School District has about 250 students in its K-12 system who are considered English-language learners, a small portion of the district's 9,100 students.

Denise Birdwell, a Higley associate superintendent, said at a recent school-board meeting that the new language-program standards are worrisome.

"I'm concerned from a funding perspective," she said.

She noted that state science and math credit requirements are increasing at the same time the students learning English will have to spend more time on language.

District officials are raising other concerns about the state language-development model adopted last fall to help English-language learners.

Higley's ELL coordinator, Heidi Larsen, noted that the students learning English are in schools throughout the district, not just one building.

Yet under the state standards, schools are to group the ELL students together, separating them from students who are fluent, when providing them with four hours of language immersion.

By law, districts cannot bus them. Instead, they'll have to put the students in separate classrooms at every school that has ELL students.

Higley and several other districts are crafting alternative strategies that they hope state officials will approve. Some are relying on models from school districts in other states or developing their own strategies to better fit their budgets, classroom and staffing constraints.

Some school districts want to ensure students learning English can simultaneously get some credits for areas such as math. Others want to eliminate what they view as an unnecessary set of hoops to jump through.

The Mesa Unified School District plans to ask the state to make an exception for students who pass the Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards exam, said Irene Frklich, director of English language acquisition.

If they pass AIMS and fulfill the state and federal standards, those students shouldn't have to keep taking the state English-language-learner assessment to be considered proficient, Frklich says.

State education officials say the goal is to ensure these students learn language through the intensive course so that they can be successful in math, science and other courses where they'll need a highly developed vocabulary.

John Stollar, Arizona's associate superintendent for accountability, said that the better a student knows English, the more likely he or she will feel comfortable in class and stay in school.

Students can take summer school and can get extra help outside of class if their school is among those in Arizona receiving funding for before- and after-school language-tutoring programs.

He said this means that schools serving ELLs also could be better positioned to achieve adequate yearly progress.

While schools can come up with alternative plans, some may not be approved.

Mesa officials want to allow the students who pass the AIMS test back into the mainstream classroom without passing the state language assessment. But Stollar said that succeeding on the AIMS test doesn't mean the student is fluent enough to perform well in the mainstream classroom.

"If I were to teach a bunch of French students mathematics - how much of my mathematics are they really going to understand?" Stollar said. "Wouldn't it be better to put them in an intensive . . . English program?"

Tim Hogan, an attorney for the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, said there are certain aspects of the new state standard for language development that are troubling and could be challenged in court, particularly the fact that ELL students are segregated and isolated for language training.

Hogan is an attorney in the Flores case filed years ago against Arizona claiming that the state has failed to fully fund education for students who are learning English.

He said he still is awaiting an opinion from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals before trying to address flaws in the new state standards for learning English.