What do school administrators love, parents loathe, students suffer from and taxpayers fund? The answer: The Scottsdale School District English as a Second Language (ESL) program.

This program serves students who either speak no English or have limited English proficiency. Over the past decade, it has grown from 246 students to 1,371 and today employs 112 teachers or teachers aides on a full-time equivalent basis. This equates to about 12 students to every teacher or teacher’s aide.

Apparently, many of those employed by the district are not fluent at any language other than English. So the school administration wants to add 35 full-time Spanish-speaking teachers (the program is mostly geared to the Hispanic student), which would dramatically decrease the student-to-teacher ratio and increase the already sizable budget.

Two methods are used most frequently for instructing students enrolled in the ESL program. The most common method involves immersing the children with math, reading, grammar, etc., in an English dialogue. The other method of instruction is known as bilingual education.

It’s the bilingual side of the ESL program that will benefit most from the additional Spanish-speaking teachers. Backers of bilingual education theorize children can’t effectively learn a second language (English) until they are proficient in their native tongue.

The theory of teaching children the basic curriculum in their native language while they slowly learn English seems odd. Call me a cynic, but the idea that a child will learn English by being taught in Spanish strikes me as ludicrous.

Hispanic parents want their children to be taught in English rather than their native Spanish language. Last year, I helped teach English to local adult Hispanic immigrants who were seeking U.S. citizenship. A few were grandparents, but most were parents to school- age children. One of my students had children attending Yavapai Elementary School.

What bothered her most was the lack of emphasis placed on English instruction. She wondered why most of her children’s learning was in Spanish.

She may have had a difficult time finding the correct words, but she made it clear that she wanted her children to be taught all subject matter in English.

“How can my children get a job like yours if they don’t speak and write good English?” she asked.

In 1990, a new law allowed school districts to spend about anything they deemed necessary to facilitate the language acquisition program, with little accountability and absolutely no required results.

Property owners in the Scottsdale School District spent a mere $250,000, or $515 per student, on this program in 1989-90. By 1997- 98, the funding had increased to more than $3.6 million, or $2,892 per student. The budget for this school year totals $4 million, which equates to $2,928 per ESL student. This is in addition to all other regular student funding.

Is more money the answer? Not if success is measured by academic achievement in reading comprehension.

In Arizona, children are tested for English proficiency before they can exit the program. Many Scottsdale School District ESL students are given the Stanford 9 Achievement Test, and those scoring in the 36th percentile or greater in the category of reading comprehension can be mainstreamed into a traditional classroom setting. In the 1997-98 school year, only 32 of 1,245 Scottsdale students – 2.6 percent – scored at or above this threshold and successfully exited the program.

Last year, 62 students, or 4.5 percent of the total ESL enrollment, exceeded the 36th percentile in reading comprehension and exited the program.

Throwing more money at this program has done absolutely nothing to improve the program results over the past decade. You see, the incentives are backward; the greater the number of students enrolled in the program, the more the school administrators will ask of the taxpayers. In other words, the greater their failures, the more they’re rewarded.

Money seems to be foremost on the minds of those in charge of this program. That’s why Scottsdale school administrators hired Verma Pastor (wife of Congressman Ed Pastor) to “study the program.”

Instead of examining successful ESL programs, the study focused more on federal compliance issues rather than what it really takes for this program to better educate the children. Complying with government regulations to ensure the money flow continues is of primary importance to school officials.

There is no doubt the ESL program can use an overhaul, but adding 35 teachers to a program flush in resources seems more like an excuse than a solution. Until the purse strings are cut and incentives changed so that teachers and administrators are rewarded for their successes rather than their failures, I expect little change in the ESL students’ academic achievements.

Mark Steele is chairman of the District 26 Republican Party and a commercial real estate appraiser. He lives in Scottsdale with his wife and their four young children. He can be reached at [email protected] via e-mail. The views expressed are those of the author.



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