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English-learners to get more intensive language classes

Arizona’s English-learners spend most of their school day with kids who already know the language.

That changes this fall.

All kids still learning English will have to spend at least four of their five or six class hours in new courses in English grammar, phonetics, conversation, reading and writing.

It’s a big change in the way the state’s K-12 schools will teach English to about 135,000 kids whose primary language is most often Spanish, but also Navajo, Somali and dozens of others. Many of those kids now get about an hour of English a day.

“More time on task. That’s a tried-and-true educational standard,” said economist Alan Maguire, who headed a task force that created the state’s new language-learning requirements. “If you want to learn how to play the piano, what do they tell you to do? They tell you to practice.”

The new model is based on a law passed last summer.

Supporters say the state is finally providing a structured language-learning model that replaces a dizzying variety of instructional methods used with varying success.

But critics warn that it is an expensive plan that segregates English-learners for most of their school day and limits their lessons in core subjects, such as math, science and history. It also will cut back on their socializing with peers.

In 2000, voters changed the way schools taught English-language learners. They shut down most bilingual learning programs and banned teaching, textbooks and instructional material in any language but English.

While the English-only message was clear, implementation was vague.

Unwilling to segregate English-learners, many districts offer English instruction for about an hour a day during the summer or after school. The rest of the time students sit in regular classrooms. How much English they learn depends on the patience and skill of teachers, aides and classmates.

Starting this school year, the children must receive four hours of daily classes dedicated to learning English. State officials hope the new approach will help students become proficient in the language within a year or two, so they can master other subjects.

Teachers in the classes must eventually complete training in a new prescriptive curriculum. Schools that do not follow the new game plan will not get extra money the state has promised to help reimburse the cost of implementing the new program.

High schools are in a good position to adapt. They have fewer language learners, offer more direct language instruction already and have more flexible scheduling. Elementary educators find the new rules confusing and say they require an abrupt change in thinking, scheduling and teaching.

“It seems like the playing field is constantly changing with English-language instruction,” Casa Grande Elementary Superintendent Frank Davidson said. “We just think we have figured out what the state is doing, and the rules change.”

About half the 18,000 elementary students at Phoenix’s Cartwright School District are still learning English. Superintendent Mike Martinez worries the new model will segregate kids, push more training onto overburdened teachers and create scheduling and class-size problems. He supports it anyway.

Once his students get past the primary grades, their language development seems to stop and they fall behind. Martinez hopes the additional time and grammar study will stop the downward trend he sees in grades and test scores of English learners across the state.

“Our biggest problem with English-language learners is our failure as educators to pin down what really works. It’s all over the map,” he said.

Marina Acosta, 18, supports the change. She began learning English in third grade in Phoenix’s Madison School District. She spent half her day in intense language-instruction classes and the other half in regular classes for two years.

She said she outpaced her friends at Phoenix’s Carl Hayden High School, who received only an hour a day of English in elementary school.

“The teachers actually set them aside and let them do something else other than the class work because they didn’t understand the concept,” said Acosta, now a freshman at Arizona State University. “I thought that was pretty bad.”

About 14 percent of the 2,800 students in Tolleson Elementary District are still learning English. Superinten-dent Bill Christensen said placing English-learners into mainstream classrooms is tough on teachers.

They must learn to group students and create lesson plans that both guide the English- learners and keep all students at and beyond grade level.

Yet Christensen said the new four-hour-a-day model is a step backward, segregating English learners and costing his district too much money in teacher training and space.

“We really don’t like getting into a situation where we feel we’re not doing what’s good for kids,” Christensen said.

Casa Grande resident Brenda Wagenknecht, 34, is a teacher and a mother of three. She has heard the complaints before: Too many language learners in a regular classroom make it difficult to elevate the level of teaching for all kids. Wageknecht knows many parents hold this view, but it’s not hers.

“As a parent, I appreciate the diversity in Arizona. I would hate to see those kids separated,” said Wagenknecht, who will have two children in Casa Grande Elementary District this fall. Wagenknecht moved to the state three years ago and teaches in the small Toltec Elementary District in Eloy.

Placing too many kids in one classroom, not the English- learners, is Arizona’s biggest hurdle to raising the quality of learning, she said.

“If you get class sizes down, you take care of issues schools are facing, including English language learners and the needs they have,” said Wagenknecht.

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