A year later

Schools grapple with English immersion law

“La-piz.” Language acquisition teacher Lou Stack pronounced the Spanish word slowly as she sat on the floor with five children at Pendergast Elementary School in west Phoenix.

“La … la … la … la-piz,” the children exclaimed as they scrambled to arrange the index cards marked with syllables to form the Spanish word for “pencil” on the floor in front of them.

In this class, Stack’s five pupils make up the lowest reading group at the school, the children with the least ability to read both Spanish and English who are brought together in a bilingual pull-out session to practice reading.

“Pe-rro,” Stack read another word, rolling her R’s. The children again scrambled to spell this word. Some were successful; one boy spelled “rro-pe” at first before Stack alerted him to his error.

This classroom sounds like a normal elementary school reading group, except the kids are learning to read in their native language, Spanish ? not English.

Alondra, Juan, Cesar, Rury and Jessica are five of the almost 400 kids, about 40 percent of total enrollment, at Pendergast whose primary home language is not English. Almost 500 of the more than 900 children at Pendergast participate in programs for limited English proficient students.

With the passage of Proposition 203 last year in Arizona, which mandated English-only language education for all children in public schools, classes like Stack’s were supposed to have been eliminated. The new law effectively outlawed bilingual education in favor of English immersion programs under the logic that it would help bilingual children learn English faster, helping them move into mainstream public education.

However, some local educators and ASU experts on bilingual education said the new law simply puts up more hurdles for non-English speaking students who want to succeed academically and the teachers who are trying to help them do just that. Many believe it is unrealistic to expect children to become fluent in English after a one-year period of “sheltered English immersion.”

Many educators also feel that asking schools to comply with Proposition 203, as well as federal law that mandates programs to assist limited English proficient students with their education, is asking too much with too little financial support from the state.

The federal law stems from a court ruling handed down by the U.S. District Court of Arizona that found that the state did not provide enough funding to effectively educate English learners in the Nogales Unified School District.

Before the ruling, called the Flores Consent Decree, the state allocated $150 per English learner to school districts, an amount the ruling called “arbitrary and capricious.” The decree set a deadline of Jan. 30 for the Legislature to take action on the matter. The state passed a bill to increase funding by $140. The final decision in the Flores case is still pending.

So schools must obey a double standard of federal laws that mandate provisions for students who do not speak English well and a new state law that frowns on any language but English spoken in Arizona’s public classrooms.

Falling through the cracks

Leonard Valverde, executive director of the Hispanic Border Leadership Institute at ASU, a consortium of eight higher education institutions in five Southwestern states, said the proposition has added new focus to his work.

“We’re trying to help school board members in K-12 education understand the value of bilingual instruction to young Latino students,” he said. “(Proposition 203) is not going to be helpful. If anything, it’s going to worsen the situation.

“They’re taking away a program that allows limited English proficient students to learn,” Valverde added. “One year is not just enough to transition these students. I see this as a step backward. Going back to the days before bilingual education, large numbers of students just fell through the cracks.”

Sarah Hudelson, a professor in the ASU College of Education who teaches students how to become bilingual educators, said the passage of Proposition 203 was possible because “many people still don’t know what bilingual education is.”

“Many schools now feel that they can’t use the native language as well as English in the classroom,” she said. “It has a negative affect on their learning. One, they don’t learn English, and two, their content learning in subjects like math and language arts suffers.”

Hudelson said the new law has made it more difficult for future bilingual education teachers to observe the real thing in Arizona. However, as Lou Stack’s classroom shows, “there are still opportunities for bilingual education,” Hudelson said, so ASU’s College of Education still trains future teachers on how to communicate with bilingual students in the students’ native language. “In our methods classes, we still teach bilingual education.”

But she added that her students wonder what to do with mainstream students who can’t communicate in English. “They ask, ‘What do I do when these kids are in these classes and they don’t know what’s going on?”

Loopholes in the law

That is why Pendergast Elementary and others have taken advantage of the waiver loophole written into the law that allows them to continue bilingual education programs that they feel are working.

Stack said Pendergast teachers and administrators thought the law didn’t know what was best for their young pupils.

“We waiver all the kids in,” Stack said, speaking of the children who learn to read in Spanish at her school. “We have to explain everything in Spanish and convince the parents to sign the waivers.”

Under the law, parents can obtain waivers to put their children in bilingual education if their child knows enough English to score at or above the state average score for their grade level or is 10 years old or older or has individual special needs that require bilingual education.

This means that the five pupils in Stack’s reading group, who can barely read Spanish or English, would be required to score higher than or the same as their peers who speak fluent English on a standardized test given entirely in English, to qualify for a program intended to help them learn to read.

The roundabout requirements of Proposition 203, are “like saying ‘You can participate in classes to learn the high jump after learning how to jump over 10 feet,'” said Lucy Urias, director of language acquisition for the Tempe Elementary School District. “I think it’s pretty clear that they don’t want any kids in bilingual education programs in Arizona.”

Parents requesting waivers for children with individual special needs are required to write a 250-word letter in English explaining why their child should be educated in two languages. It is a daunting task for most of the parents of children who need bilingual education, as many of them speak little to no English as well.

But schools like Pendergast have found a way around that. The school has a type of form letter where parents can fill in certain blanks to make it specific to their child.

Stack said that without the waivers, the kids would be far behind their peers in most school subjects by the time they learned English. She said they would feel abandoned by an education system so focused on immersing them in English that it forgot about their academic success.

Instead, because her parents have signed a waiver, Alondra was able to read aloud to her classmates. She read a short story entitled, “Pepe A?ora,” slowly in Spanish, tracing her small finger under each Spanish word. When she finished her classmates applauded Ricky Martin-style, imitating the Latin performer’s dances with their small bodies. Stack handed Alondra a certificate of achievement for her effort.

Truth in test scores

Standardized test scores show that children in bilingual programs in Arizona schools often score in a higher percentile in reading and writing than do children in English as a Second Language programs. ESL is a program that uses the type of language-immersion education mandated under Proposition 203.

According to the Stanford 9 reading assessment in 1999, children in bilingual/bicultural programs (outlawed by the new law) scored higher in reading at every grade level, except for seventh grade, than those in ESL programs. By high school, grades 9, 10 and 11, the bilingual children were scoring 6 percent to 7 percent higher on the reading test than those in immersion programs.

According to the 2000 English Acquisition Services Report issued by the Arizona Department of Education, there were 89,083 students classified as limited English proficient in grades K-12 of Arizona’s public schools as of January 2000. The vast majority of those students ? 82,492 ? tested below district standards in reading or writing in 1999.

About 40 percent of the limited English proficient students participate in ESL programs. The rest are divided between bilingual/bicultural programs; transitional bilingual (K-6), the program used at Pendergast Elementary; secondary bilingual (grades 7-12); and individual education programs.

Lucy Urias said this year’s test scores will show that the proposition has been a hindrance to education.

“The proposition itself just makes everybody jump through more hoops,” she said. “In the past students with limited English could be exempted from standardized tests. Now everybody has to participate, if you’re an immigrant that has just arrived or a native English speaker. Needless to say, there’s not going to be much success.”

Urias said many children in the district who needed bilingual education could not be given access because they did not have the required waivers.

“Large numbers of students, students we feel could benefit from bilingual education, are not getting it,” Urias said. Twenty-two percent of the children in Tempe’s elementary schools speak a language other than English at home.

Urias added that one positive of the law was that it forces all teachers to treat each student equally.

“It makes all teachers accountable for all of their students,” she said. “Before, teachers had a tendency to rely on the ELL (English Language Learning) practitioner to communicate with certain students. Now they’re forced to think outside the box.”

Urias’ district has started a new program to help its schools comply with the law and mainstream their non-English-speaking students. Called STELLAR, an acronym for Supporting Teachers of English Language Learning Ardently and Respectfully, the program has six trainers who work in the classrooms of the districts’ schools and help teachers learn how to interact with children who don’t speak much English.

Sonya Gronning is one of those trainers, called STELLAR specialists. Gronning helps teachers alter lesson plans to support English Language Learning strategies based on brain research. She also works to keep teachers updated on the laws regarding what goes on inside their classrooms with limited English students.

“I use hands-on techniques, manipulatives and visuals to communicate with non-English proficient students,” Gronning said. “I teach strategies to draw out vocabulary.”

Unlike Pendergast Elementary, Gronning said, “We don’t believe in ability-based grouping.”

“Teachers wonder, ‘If you don’t have a second language, how do communicate with a student who is monolingual Spanish speaker?'” she added. “We show them that it can be done.”

English Before Education

Low funding from the state made it difficult for schools to switch their curriculums from bilingual education to sheltered English immersion. That, coupled with a lack of trust by some educators in English-immersion programs, has brought schools in Arizona to what Ron Unz calls “rough compliance” with the state law.

Unz is the national chairman of English for the Children, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based advocacy organization that seeks to replace bilingual education with English immersion programs across the nation. He drafted California’s 1998 Proposition 227, “English for the Children,” which passed by 61 percent in June 1998. Hispanic activists in Arizona asked Unz for assistance in passing Proposition 203 that passed by 63 percent in November 2000.

Unz said some schools had complied well with the law, while others were still fighting to keep their programs completely intact.

“Some of the schools are granting totally inappropriate waivers,” he said. “But, we’re seeing 70 to 80 percent compliance statewide.”

Unz added that he believes test scores for immigrant children will improve under the new law.

However, a study by three researchers from Stanford University completed in January 2000 shows that is a farfetched hope. The study, “How Long Does It Take English Learners to Attain Proficiency?” is referenced on the California Department of Education Web site.

Researchers took data from two school districts in the San Francisco Bay Area and from a district in Canada. They analyzed students’ levels of English proficiency as a function of their length of exposure to the language.

Researchers concluded that “even in two California districts that are considered the most successful in teaching English to LEP students, oral proficiency takes three to five years to develop and academic English proficiency can take four to seven years.”

Critics of bilingual education, like Unz, argue that use of the native language delays English acquisition. However, only one of the districts studied used bilingual education.

The study called policies like California’s Proposition 227, which calls for “sheltered English immersion during a temporary transition period not normally intended to exceed one year,” the exact same language used in Arizona’s law, “wildly unrealistic.” It recommended programs that set aside the elementary school years as a realistic period for English acquisition, and a curriculum that balances English learning with other academic needs.

Lou Stack said that bilingual education does not delay English acquisition, rather it’s the immersion programs fostered by Proposition 203 that delay education overall.

“We want them to be up to grade level in their native language and then it’s time to transition,” she said.

Margaret Garcia-Dugan, principal of Glendale High School, disagreed. She was one of the Arizona educators who asked Ron Unz to work in Arizona to outlaw bilingual education programs.

Garcia-Dugan said she got involved as an English as a Second Language teacher when she saw children who had lived in Arizona for years coming out of bilingual education programs without being able to communicate or learn in English.

“I just thought it was really a malpractice of education,” she said. “If you teach algebra, they learn algebra. Same with English.”

Garcia-Dugan serves as the Maricopa County co-chair for English for the Children and agreed that some schools are fighting too hard to hold on to bilingual education.

“The waiver criteria is being very loosely interpreted by some of the districts,” Garcia-Dugan said. “To me, that is not going about the spirit of the law. They’re trying to keep a program that is abysmal at best.”

Backward law

Stack thinks Arizona’s education system is going backward by implementing Proposition 203.

“It’s really ironic because other states are just dying to get bilingual education programs,” she said. “Truly educated people support bilingual education. My personal belief is that this 203 stuff is going to be ruled unconstitutional. It’s denying students their constitutional right to learn.”

Stack added that the United States needs bilingual education to keep pace with other nations as communication globalizes.

“We’re the only country in the world whose English speakers don’t speak another language,” she said. “We are limiting ourselves in terms of global interaction. There are cognitive advantages to being bilingual.”

Stack said Pendergast has considered implementing a dual-language program, where all of its students would learn Spanish as well as English. Stack added that schools in California have piloted programs like these and the children spend alternate days being taught by different teachers in both Spanish and English. However, Stack said, a program like that would require even more waivers.

In programs like these, kids are put on an even playing field as far as language ability. “All then English-speaking kids are asking for help from the Spanish speakers,” she said. The result would optimally be students fluent in two languages by the time they’re in high school.

But supporters of Proposition 203 remain skeptical about the worth of dual-immersion.

Unz said that the effectiveness of such dual-immersion programs remains untested, and, depending on how the programs are run, they may be illegal in Arizona.

“They have to comply with the law,” he added. “The initiative doesn’t outlaw such programs, but it puts severe restrictions on such programs. There is no evidence that they work to teach English.”

Garcia-Dugan expressed concern that such dual-immersion programs could be schools’ methods of masking bilingual education programs.

“I’m not sure that the kids they’re putting into the (dual-immersion) programs know English,” she said.

However, Lou Stack hopes for dual-immersion programs to give children like Alondra, Juan, Jessica, Cesar and Rury the chance to use the language they’re taught at home to help others, to bring their language and culture skills to the classroom and to feel like Arizona’s schools care more about their success than what language they speak.

That day in Stack’s classroom, Juan read the same story Alondra did and received applause as well as he finished sounding out the Spanish words. As he received his certificate, the bell rang, and Stack’s five pupils rushed out the door excitedly to their next class, causing Stack to command them to walk slowly in the hallways ? just how most Arizona teachers have to remind their young pupils.

The five kids running to their next class aren’t so different from the rest of Arizona’s children in public schools, except as they rushed out the door, they were shouting in Spanish.

Jessica, Cesar, Juan, Rury and Alondra may not know a lot of English ? yet, but schools like Pendergast aim to give them what the law cannot ? a sense that they can achieve academically as they’re learning English.

Reach the reporter at [email protected]

————————– Story Source: State Press

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