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 mainstream classes.

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 school districts.

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 another.

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.

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