Wednesday, October 08, 2008

ELL students' class time isn't great, but it's 'good enough'

By Rhonda Bodfield

When school started this year, districts across the state were supposed to put students with poor or non-existent English skills into language-development classes for four hours a day.

Mostly, it's not happening.

In part, it's because there were a number of exceptions written into the plan so schools with few English learners or schools participating in certain approved reading programs are excluded from the requirement.

Also, districts are having a hard time pulling it off with available resources. Although the districts submitted funding requests of about $274 million, the state set aside $40 million. And some districts, such as the Tucson Unified School District, received no new money to comply with the new law.

Of the 75 elementary schools in TUSD, for example, only 29 would technically be required to have four-hour blocks. Fewer than five are pulling it off, said Steve Holmes, the chief academic officer in charge of the English-learners program.
Holmes, who said the district needed 100 new positions to be able to fully comply, has set up a meeting with officials from the state Education Department to explain that despite good-faith efforts, this year is simply going to have to be a transition year.
"We're willing to do it, but we're between a rock and a hard place because we don't have the resources to do four hours across the board," he said. "We're doing the best we can, and this year that's going to have to be good enough."

"Good enough" appears to be close enough this time around.

Tom Horne, the state schools chief, said although the four-hour standard is not being universally met, none of the districts is being "defiant."

"My people tell me that the districts are all making a good-faith effort, and we're going to use common sense in making sure that they become fully compliant within a reasonable time," Horne said.

He remains convinced it's a good plan and said he anticipates that students will get reclassified faster out of remedial English classes. Previously, he said, some schools offered only half an hour of language development a day. "It's going to be one of the most important things we've done in education in Arizona for a long time," he said. "The rate at which students are going to be learning English is going to soar."
Horne points to the success of some districts that started the new model early. The Florence Unified School District, for example, was able to reclassify 38 percent of its English learners after a year of the program, more than double its earlier reclassification rate of 15 percent. Humboldt Unified School District, near Prescott, went from 12 percent to 28 percent, he said.

In Tucson, one of the few schools in which the model is in full bloom is Cragin Elementary School, 2945 N. Tucson Blvd., where school officials are skeptical but complying.

Principal Pearl Miller cited a number of concerns.

Putting only English learners in one class together means that some classes are quite small. In third and fourth grade, for example, there are 18 students per class. Other mainstream classes, though, get stuffed full.

With only about six hours of instructional time in a day, she said, working on language skills for four hours doesn't leave much time for other subjects, especially since the school has decided all students should continue getting an hour of math.
And finally, there's the philosophical concern about isolating students from their English-speaking counterparts.

"Our staff is well-trained and committed, and logistically we are able to do it, but we don't really feel good about the segregation that's occurring. It's hard for us to say we're proud of our diversity here, and then say, 'Over here, in this separate room, is where we teach our students learning English,' " she said.

Saralinda Mendivil, a fourth-grade teacher who has taught at Cragin for seven years, said she is thrilled with the smaller class size because classroom management comes easier and she's able to give students more individualized attention. Still, she continues to have reservations.

"Philosophically, we believe that everyone learns from each other," she said, adding that in a more traditional classroom, English-speaking students could partner with those with fewer language skills and model for them. "They're still able to help each other at different levels, but if you want a true model, they should be around other English-speaking children."

Last year, she said, her fourth-graders already were doing a good deal of work to prepare for the science portion of the AIMS test, which got off the ground last year. This year, she's squeezing it in when she can, along with social studies and history when possible.

"They're still getting some exposure, but not in the way that would serve them the best."

Horne said teaching language skills doesn't mean core academics must be neglected. Instead, language skills should be incorporated into those subjects, he said. "Secondly, it's four hours, so there are still two more hours for other subjects," he said, adding there's always summer school if students still need to catch up.
Cragin parent Karla Muñoz, 36, said her 6-year-old first-grader, Keiji, is happier this year than he was in kindergarten last year. "I think it's better," the native Spanish speaker said.

"Last year, he didn't like getting pulled out. He kept asking why he had to leave and what the other students were doing while he was gone. He feels better about it now, because he doesn't feel so different."
Teacher Mendivil acknowledged that the students didn't like the pull-out. She said when she explained at the beginning of the year how things were going to work, a cheer went up when she told them they wouldn't be taken out of class for separate language development.

But, she said, the students also realized right away that they were separated from their old friends.

"I tried to just be forthright with them. I told them they should never be ashamed of their culture and their language, but they're here in the United States and we need to make sure they can master the language so they can succeed."

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