Friday, February 01, 2008

Segregation is coming to our schools next year

Important message on the effects of top-down policies on ELL students from the perspective of a school administrator. -Patricia

Opinion by Kathleen Bethel | Arizona Star
Tucson, Arizona
January 22, 2008

The Arizona Department of Education introduced the "new" plan for English Language Learners to principals and leaders in our district. But the informational meetings have been occurring around the state for many months. And the silence is deafening.
Many educators are in shock wondering how we could have come to this without a public outcry. But voters never even had a chance to express their approval or outrage.

Principals are being mandated to separate all students who are not deemed "proficient" in the English language from the rest of the population next year. They must be placed in separate classes from any child who is "proficient," or, any student who will never be tested due to the fact that their parents speak only English. The child must stay assigned to that class until they are deemed proficient.

It does not take much imagination to see how these classes will look. Arizona schools will have much the same feel as the historic "separate but equal" education. The psychological barriers will be firmly established from the beginning. Children will learn their place by being assigned to "that classroom." They will know who are the language "haves" and "have-nots."

Using Prop. 203, the English for Children initiative that passed in 2000, as the basis for an overhaul in the learning of English in Arizona, a task force of nine individuals was appointed to design this model. None of those appointed was an expert in the field of language learning, only two were educators and some had a political agenda.

The model was not based on any proven, successful plan. It will not be funded, although it will cause financial hardship to every district. Our Legislature quietly passed it as ARS 2064 in September 2006.

The plan's writers are quick to state their plan is not actually unconstitutional. Defending the segregated placements as "only temporary" until the child proves he is proficient in English, the writers claim that the plan is not a violation of civil rights. A child might be there for only one year. But the burden of proof is on the children. It is up to them to test out.

Testing out depends on proficiency not only in speaking English but also in reading and writing on the Arizona English Language Learner Assessment (AZELLA). Even native English speakers might have trouble passing, but we will never know. They will not be tested.

If the writers of the plan truly had English proficiency for all students as their primary motivation, they should have included the testing of all students to prove its intent is not discriminatory.

All logic is missing. To learn German, I would want to be immersed in a class with German language role models, and supported with instruction, not "held" in a separate class with others who speak at the same level I do.

The level of proficiency determines class placement and is obtained as a child registers. Even if a child has a baby-sitter after school who speaks another language, stating that will red flag that child as needing to test his proficiency. Imagine being a kindergartner or student new to a school, walking through the doors for the first time, only to be taken to another room by a stranger and given a test. How well would you do?

Unfortunately, the parents who should and would be most outraged at this new development will remain silent. They are the ones who also are not proficient enough to protest. And educators may be afraid they will be more closely monitored if they express their concerns.

So it is imperative that those of us who have witnessed the impact of separate but equal speak out. We must not be afraid. We must invite scrutiny and resist the temptation to let the injustice of this plan continue.

E-mail Kathleen Bethel at


  1. Thank you for writing this letter. I wish I had read it before.

    I strongly disagree with the current program because I think that the selection criteria for ESL testing, the child's family language (and not solely his/her academic performance,) is very discriminatory.

    Something that can be done is to send a written complaint to the Civil Rights Union. If you are in Arizona, you can download the forms from the website

    While the current ELL program may indeed help some children, placing children who fail such a test in a separate class will probably not help all of them learn better. In any case, parents should have the last word and the option, but apparently, there is no opt-out.

    An ESL program assistant who she didn’t know and was not her teacher gave AZELLA test to my kindergarten child on her second week of school. Probably you know that this test asks children to do things that most children at this age, neither English-only nor multilingual, can do. For example, most 4-5 year old children do not fully understand what a test is, why they need to cooperate with the interviewer, and what the consequences of not doing so are. They cannot manage several testing sessions of 45 minutes or more. And certainly, children that are starting kindergarten don't know (and ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO KNOW AT ALL) how to read and write signs, math signs and wording, letters, words, or sentences, but the pre-writing level test requires them to do so.

    Apparently, a prestigious consultant designed the test, however, it is impossible to assess and validate its validity in the context in which it is given, and each time it is given, just because it is not given to all children.

    As a result, children are given an inevitable sentence of bad performers to start their school life, just because they and/or their families are multilingual.

  2. Well, after requesting the opt-out in very strong terms, the ELL opt out form was sent from the school district administration to me and I signed it. My child now will be allowed to be in the "mainstream" classroom.
    If ELL programs were offered to parents together with the opt-out forms, rather than the way it was done to me: -sign the AZELLA test consent form because it is required by Federal Law-, maybe, I would have looked at it as valuable option worth to consider. However, I am still concerned. I don't want her to grow up thinking she is a "mainstream person", but a human being equal to anybody else. This way to name the English-only + ELL opt-out children classrooms sounds absolutely politically incorrect. One more concern. Is this new 4-hour in a special class system self-perpetuating segregation problems through teaching children that there is the "mainstream ones" and "the other children"? Children currently in the system might grow up thinking "it is OK to segregate in schools".