Arizona Monitors Schools for English Immersion Law
By Ines Alicea, ELL Outlook™ Contributing Writer
Margaret Garcia Dugan and her team of monitors checked to see that teachers working with ELLs spoke English fluently, that none of the children or teachers spoke Spanish in the classroom, that the schools had properly tested and placed ELLs in English immersion classrooms, and that the schools' paperwork for ELLs was in order.
Garcia Dugan, associate superintendent for academic achievement at the Arizona Department of Education, was on a mission during her school visits in October. She wanted assurance that the schools were complying with Arizona's law requiring that English language learners be immersed in classes taught only in English.
"We saw some confusion, but most schools are moving toward that," said Garcia Dugan of the compliance audits the Arizona Department of Education is conducting on schools. Her boss, state school superintendent Tom Horne, had made enforcement of Arizona's English immersion law, which was on the books but had been followed haphazardly, a top priority for his election campaign.
This fall, Horne went into full swing enforcing Proposition 203, a law that requires Arizona teachers to speak in English and use English-language books when teaching ELLs. He toughened the rules for how schools can teach ELLs and set out to crack down on what he calls "abuses" that have allowed too many students into bilingual programs rather than English-only classes. Horne's directives shut down some language courses, made it harder for students to remain in bilingual classes, tightened state monitoring, and mainstreamed English learners into regular classrooms. Schools that don't comply risk losing funding or accreditation.
The Department of Education held sessions showing best practices for implementing the English immersion law and hired 8 former ELL teachers to monitor classrooms. Another 37 department employees who have experience in special education and Title I violations will scan the schools' paperwork for violations of the English immersion law as well as other laws, said Garcia Dugan. The top 50 schools with the highest numbers of ELL students will be audited once every four years. Ten schools chosen at random will be audited every year, as will ten schools with the lowest numbers of ELLs. Schools that receive a written complaint will also be monitored, Horne said. The department issues reports informing schools about deficiencies in their ELL programs, and the schools have 60 days to submit a corrective action plan that must be approved by the department. Once department and school officials agree on a course of action, the school has 30 days to begin making changes.
While Horne's efforts have been controversial, he was given a boost when Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard ruled in July that Arizona's education chief was within his power when he laid out guidelines on bilingual education.
But the task is complicated. Adoption of the new directives has not been smooth. One principal in the Isaac Elementary School District, where the student population is 95 percent Hispanic, stirred additional controversy by ordering teachers and students to keep Spanish out of their playgrounds, cafeterias, and hallways. Horne noted in an August 8, 2003 memo designed to clarify his guidelines for superintendents and principals that there were several instances of misinterpretation. He wrote that one school district, fearing it would violate the English-immersion law, refused to distribute books that came from the governor because they were bilingual. Horne said that he had stepped in to encourage the district to distribute the books. He said music teachers reported that a principal at another school told them not to use words like allegro in class, an episode which he called "a serious misinterpretation."
"The violation occurs when a significant portion of the day is spent in the student's home language, thereby decreasing the speed with which the student will become proficient in English," Horne wrote. "Other than that, common sense should prevail."
In 1999-2000, before voters passed the English immersion initiative, about 75 percent of Arizona's 151,000 ELLs were in Structured English Immersion; today 90 percent are in that program, according to Salvador Gabaldon. Gabalon is a language acquisition specialist for the office of professional development in the Tucson Unified School District, which with more than 60,000 students is Tucson's largest school district. This increase in the number of students in Structured English Immersion programs means that more teachers have to be trained in that format. While the state is under court order to increase funding to educate ELLs, the money has been slow to come and is far less than advocates for ELLs had hoped.
Still, Horne claims that the law has loopholes. It allows students who speak English fluently to participate in classes taught in both Spanish and English. Horne said that schools were abusing that privilege by accepting students into bilingual classes who barely speak English. His new rules will prevent this by tightening the guidelines for granting waivers for families who want their children in bilingual education.
The law specifies that students may participate in bilingual education classes by qualifying for a waiver in one of three ways. The most common way for a student to qualify is to demonstrate "good English language skill" on the LAS oral test. The law says that a qualifying score is one that is "approximately at or above the state average for [a student's] grade level." Rather than calculate the average for each grade level in Arizona, Horne used the testing company figures for an overall national average, a "proficiency" score of 4.
"To this date no one knows the actual averages for each grade level in our state," said Gabaldon. "States and grades have varying averages because they have different proportions of ELLs. The average for North Dakota (1 percent ELLs) will be very different from the average in Arizona (20 percent ELLs). Horne's policy is intended to void the waiver guarantees that voters provided to ELLs in the election."
The new law also allows some students to opt out of English immersion classes with permission from parents or school administrators. Horne said that schools take advantage of this by encouraging large groups of students to remain in bilingual classes. He will require schools to document why individual students shouldn't attend English immersion classes. Parents must write a statement of no less than 250 words demonstrating that their child has special needs "beyond the child's lack of English proficiency" and must attest to a "psychological or physical" reason to place the child in bilingual education. Garcia Dugan said children must try the Structured English Immersion Program for 30 days before a parent can ask for a waiver to place the child in bilingual education. "We must exhaust every method to teach that child English," she added.
Former school teacher Alejandra Sotomayor recalled the difficulties she faced as a five-year-old in an Americanization program for southern Arizona students who did not speak English, called 1C. After Sotomayor spent several months in the program, she remembers, her teacher heard her say three letters of the alphabet and moved Sotomayor to a regular first-grade classroom.
"It wasn't until the fifth or sixth grade that I could read on par with the rest of the group and I didn't get math until middle school," said Sotomayor, a member of the executive board of the Arizona Association of Bilingual Education. "It was horrible. Students can parrot a lot of English, but what they know is often superficial and they miss all of the content."
Sotomayor and other bilingual education supporters see Horne's efforts as a regression to 1C. Students were punished for speaking Spanish during 1C, and about 60 percent of ELLs in the TUSD dropped out of school from 1919 to 1967 while 1C was in existence. They say they fear that the state's 11.8 percent Hispanic dropout rate could grow higher. The dropout rate for white students is 5.6 percent.
Sotomayor says a huge inequity in the law is that Horne is allowing native English speakers to be in dual language programs so they can learn Spanish, but children who are native Spanish speakers are essentially being told "the language you come with is of no use."
"To not give those students the same opportunity as native [English] speakers is criminal," said Sotomayor. "This is not about learning. It's about weeding kids out because when they fall behind grade level, they will eventually drop out. It seems like we need many casualties in this tug of war before any change occurs."
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