PHOENIX – It takes longer for students in Tucson schools to
achieve English proficiency than in similarly sized districts, but
they appear to do better academically than those rushed through
English-as-a-second-language courses, according to a state report
being released today.
But the students in the bilingual education program offered by the
district still lag far behind the majority of their classmates, the
state Department of Education study shows.
“All of the research in the area demonstrates that the late-exit
programs give students a better chance to be successful in the
mainstream,” said Leonard Basurto, Tucson Unified School District’s
bilingual education director.
The report also shows that more limited-English students learned
the language well enough in the last school year to succeed in all-
English classes, but the number is still far below the state
Department of Education’s expectations. Four percent of 112,522
limited-English students were eligible for mainstream classes,
compared with 2.7 percent last year.
“I can tell you that’s still not a good figure,” said Patricia
Likens, the department’s spokeswoman. “One-quarter of our kids are
still not making it into the mainstream.”
The new report, obtained by Capitol Media Services yesterday, is
going to rekindle the debate over which types of programs work and
whether there should be a four-year limit on how long students are
allowed to remain in specialized education.
But it has united two foes in the controversy: Both state school
superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan and state Sen. Joe Eddie Lopez, D-
Phoenix, agree public schools are failing students coming from homes
with little or no English.
The report, mandated by the Legislature, tracks what kind of
programs each school district uses and how many years it takes
students with limited English skills to become proficient enough for
It also shows that students in bilingual and bicultural programs
consistently perform better on standardized tests than those where
English is taught as a second language to students from non-English-
speaking homes. The bilingual programs, where instruction is in both
languages, are the type used largely in the Tucson and Sunnyside
But there is a price to be paid: In Tucson, fewer than 30 percent
of the students who were reassessed for skills were declared
proficient in four years. By contrast, the statewide figures show
that more than 75 percent of students were found to be proficient
after that much time.
More than half the students in the state, however, were enrolled
in English-as-a-second-language programs. At most grade levels,
those students suffered.
For example, the report says that ninth-graders in ESL programs
were performing better than 14 percent of other students tested, but
worse than 86 percent of students tested. In kindergarten-through-
high-school bilingual-bicultural programs, students performed better
than 25 percent of students taking the tests.
There were similar disparities at other grade levels.
“Those kids coming out of the programs like Tucson are doing much
better academically than students who are getting out of the program
in three to four years,” Lopez said.
Keegan said she doesn’t believe districts that provide only four
years of specialized instruction are shortchanging students. In
fact, she said, the ability of many districts to complete the work in
four years shows it can be done.
But she is not impressed with any of the statistics, no matter
what type of program is being measured, she said. Even in the best
case, students from non-English-speaking homes managed to do no
better than 40 percent of their classmates in testing.
Lopez is sponsoring legislation that would provide special state
funding only for bilingual-bicultural programs, where students are
taught by teachers proficient in both languages. That would deny the
extra state aid now available to districts with ESL programs.
He said it is up to Keegan’s agency to figure out what programs
work and make sure these are the only ones used.
The debate, though, could be settled by voters. Maria Mendoza, a
founder of English for the Children Arizona, said yesterday that her
group is actively gathering signatures on a proposition to abolish
bilingual education altogether.
Keegan said she agrees changes are needed, but she says it is
premature to declare one type of program more successful than
But Keegan said she is confident there needs to be a four-year
limit on special programs.
“It is really unfortunate to insist that kids cannot learn a
language when they are in the country for four years,” she said.