School works to meet feds' English needs
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 7, 2005

Betty Reid

Juan Figueroa feels alone when he tries to speak English in front of a roomful of native speakers.

"I stutter because the words are hard to say," said the fifth-grader, who speaks Spanish and needs his peers to translate for him. "I get embarrassed and I'm alone when I can't say English words."

Figueroa, 11, is one of 300 middle school students who added 45 minutes of English lessons to their school schedule this year at Sierra Vista in the Roosevelt School District.

The lessons were added to comply with a parents' complaint filed in 2000 with the U.S. Department of Education-Office of Civil Rights.

The parents, including Reyna Polanco and Michael Pops, claimed that the south Phoenix district wasn't doing enough to teach English to its Spanish-speaking students.

Five years later, the Roosevelt district is finally taking steps to comply.
District officials agreed to do several things, including overhauling its programs for students learning English and allowing the federal agency to monitor its activity while it worked to comply with the order.

District officials said they that have tried teaching English learners in regular arts classes but that the approach did not work. Now they are staring over, adding 45 minutes of extra instruction for English language learners and English-proficient students.

Pops, whose daughter has moved on to high school since the complaint was filed, said he is unhappy with the length of time the district took to make corrections.

"How much more do our children deserve to be shortchanged in south Phoenix?"
Pops asked. "They are just now, five years later, implementing this program.
It is five years behind."

Pops' main complaint deals with the district's failure to get more parents involved at the schools using Title 1, federal money given to children who are poor and who traditionally lag behind on test scores.

Though the district built a welcome center, Pops said he would have liked to have parents outline improvements in Title 1 funding and have had a role about how to address student academic achievement.

Polanco was elected to a seat on the Roosevelt governing school board in
2004 and now says the district is working with ELL students while at the same time abiding by the English Only law that passed in 2000.

No parent has complained to her about a child receiving an inadequate dose of English lessons, Polanco said.

"Maybe one or two parents are not satisfied," she said, adding that she believes the district is doing what it is supposed to do.

"I haven't heard complaints from parents. This is very crucial for me. If a parent said, 'Miss Polanco, this is my complaint about the school and a lack of English lessons,' then I question."

Sierra Vista educators developed their curriculum for fifth- through eighth-graders who took the Stanford English Language Proficiency Test. They were placed in one of three classrooms: nearly proficient, medium proficient or low proficient in English.

"(This placement is done) with the idea that, as the students start to learn and their English language skills increase, they'll be moved out," Sierra Vista Principal Jeanne Koba said.

Students in the same grades who don't struggle with English took elective literacy classes and dabbled in writers workshops and newspaper writing.

Rafael Hernandez, 11, is in a classroom of fluent English speakers who worked on crafting poems and completed their work with a book, A Celebration of Poetry. Hernandez wrote a poem about anger, The Worst Day.

Sierra Vista has about 580 preschool through eighth-grade students.

District officials say Sierra Vista is the first of the 20 campuses to begin classes for English language learners to address the 2000 OCR complaint.
They expect other campuses will follow in October.

More than a third of Roosevelt's students - 4,298 out of about 12,000 - were identified as ELL students this spring.

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-8049.