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Tue, Oct. 15

New Arizona law changes how English Language learners are taught

A student works on his “mixed emotions” assignment at Rhodes Junior High School. Students were told to write a short paragraph about a time when they experienced conflicting feelings. (Kelsey Mo/Cronkite News)

A student works on his “mixed emotions” assignment at Rhodes Junior High School. Students were told to write a short paragraph about a time when they experienced conflicting feelings. (Kelsey Mo/Cronkite News)

MESA — A cacophony of voices speaking in Spanish, interspersed with laughter, fills a classroom at Rhodes Junior High School. Some students speak halting English, but on occasion they attempt to translate for students who don’t speak any.

As the students try to type short paragraphs describing a time when they experienced conflicting emotions, several use Google to translate phrases or entire sentences. The students later upload those paragraphs to their blogs.

Amethyst Hinton Sainz, the teacher, stands near her desk helping two students retrieve their login credentials.

“Buscar a, buscan, buscen … como se dice?” she asked, conjugating the verb “to look” in Spanish.

“Buscen,” some of her students replied.

“Buscen a edublogs in your Gmail,” she told them.

Arizona has had a difficult history with providing adequate education for English Learners, which led to a lawsuit against the state in 1992. A law passed in 2006 required every school district to provide a four-hour model of Structured English Immersion for students who are classified as English Learners. Critics say the program segregates students who do not speak English as their native language from students who do.

The reclassification rate of students who became proficient in English last year was about 15%, according to the Arizona Department of Education. In fact, students who have tested to become “Reclassified Fluent English Proficient” have not exceeded 31% since 2011, according to the department.

In February, however, Gov. Doug Ducey signed Senate Bill 1014, which reduces the number of required hours EL students must be taught and gives school districts flexibility to craft their own research-based models. Advocates say this will help students and improve scores on AZELLA, a test used to measure proficiency in English.

‘Virtual if not complete segregation’

Rhodes Junior High, near Baseline and Dobson roads, doesn’t have a “set” bell schedule. Students attend what’s called advisory periods at the beginning and end of the day, where they might receive mentoring and individual work time.

Wednesday at Rhodes is “Social Emotional Learning Day.” There are schoolwide celebrations, the students have more “independent learning time,” and clubs meet during school hours.

But Hinton Sainz’s students, who are intermediate- and introduction-level EL, didn’t often get to participate in the fun because of the required four structured hours of reading, writing, vocabulary and conversation, and grammar. With only so many hours in a day, it was impossible for students to be in the Structured English Immersion program and fit in math, phys ed and other classes required for graduation.

Some EL students haven’t had science or social studies all year, Hinton Sainz said. Her students were stuck in the four hour block, unable to attend other classes.

This sort of rigid model results in “virtual if not complete segregation,” she said.

“Without building a rich tapestry of background knowledge, English learners will fall behind in areas other than English and will lack the conceptual knowledge on which to hang their language,” she said at a January hearing at the Legislature for Senate Bill 1014.

A failed system

Advocates say the low reclassification rates are the product of a failed system. Stefan Swiat, a public information officer with the state Department of Education, said the four-hour block has hindered the academic success of EL students.

Data for 2014 and 2015 were not available, Swiat said, because the state took a hiatus on the A-F School Accountability System, which gives letter grades to schools based on their achievement. Because the program wasn’t in effect, the data for reclassification rates was not included in its mandatory reporting.

In 2016, the federal Office for Civil Rights told the department it was releasing students from English Language programs too early for them to achieve proficiency on other required assessments.

“So they tightened the screws on us and said that we had to beef up AZELLA … and basically keep students there longer and create more rigor for them so they can perform better and achieve proficiency on AzMERIT,” he said, explaining why test scores dropped.

With the new law, Swiat has high hopes.

“I would not be surprised whatsoever if we see reclassification increase even more after this legislation,” he said. “Being around people and interacting is the fastest way to actually improve your language skills. And that was being withheld from them.”

New legislation to help EL students

Senate Bill 1014, introduced by Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Phoenix, reduces the required hours of SEI from four hours to two hours for students in kindergarten through fifth grade, and to one hour and 40 minutes for students in grades 6 through 12.

This allows school districts to submit their own “research-based” SEI models to the State Board of Education, which will have to create a framework to evaluate those models, for approval. The law also got rid of the one-year limit.

Boyer, an English teacher, said in a hearing that the Legislature does not dictate curriculum or how teachers should teach, but laws for teaching English were too stringent.

Hinton Sainz, who testified in committee, said that her students deserve to be integrated into the school as “social equals lacking only in language,” a dding “they do not deserve to be shut off from the vast majority of seventh and eighth grade curriculum and community.”

At the hearing, Stacey Morley, government affairs director for Stand for Children Arizona, said SB 1014 was the culmination of a journey that began a few years ago in the Roosevelt School District, where a group of parents were frustrated their children were “segregated,” not reclassifying.

Morley said this bill provides flexibility to school districts to innovate.

She added that on average, students spend seven years classified as an EL student.

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