TUSD, Sunnyside challenge state’s ELL mandate
Maria Valencia, a fourth-grader last year in a dual language class at Los Amigos Elementary School, records observations in English as part of a science project.
Two area school districts have devised their own plans to teach English to non-English speakers, contending a teaching mandate from the Legislature is unfair.
Now, Sunnyside and Tucson unified school districts must persuade the Legislature to adopt their ideas, which are strikingly similar.
A legislative mandate in 2006, which has been in and out of the courts, says students not proficient in English must be segregated four hours a day to learn English beginning with the 2008-09 school year.
Critics contend four hours is too long and will prevent students from taking classes in other subjects. Critics fear it could keep students from graduating from high school in four years.
Both districts’ plans would cut the four hours of immersion to two hours. Students would spend the other two hours in integrated subjects other than English, where they would learn academic concepts in addition to receiving specialized English support.
The plan, dubbed “2 plus 2,” is the best way to go, said officials from TUSD, which has about 8,000 ELL students, and Sunnyside, which has about 4,000. However, they still haven’t heard whether their plans will be approved and don’t expect to until Friday.
That’s when the Arizona English Language Learners Task Force may decide on alternatives proposed by the Tucson districts and other school districts across the state. About 20 districts have submitted alternative plans, and more than 100 Arizona school district superintendents protested a lack of funding for the state plan earlier this year at the state Capitol.
Steve Holmes, TUSD’s assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, said the 2 plus 2 plan “just makes educational sense.” He said he has given the task force a report, and talked with some of the members May 19.
Sunnyside sent 37 parents and staff members to Phoenix for its presentation May 14.
The state has one exception for its four-hour mandate. If a school has 20 or fewer students who would be affected by the ruling, or 20 or fewer students across three consecutive grade levels affected, it can create Individual Learning Plans for those students and they can stay in mainstream classrooms, Holmes said.
“The way this (exception) affects TUSD is that half of our schools would have individual plans and half would have four hours of segregated classes. Even at some schools, you could have both,” Holmes said.
“Especially in a district with high mobility like TUSD, how do we justify it to parents, who have moved inside the district and come to us and say, ‘We were at one school where my student had an ILP, and now we’re at a school where my student is segregated,’ ” he said.
At Sunnyside, parents are concerned that four hours a day of English will keep their children, especially those in high school, from taking the classes they need to graduate in four years, said Jeannie Favela, assistant superintendent for student services.
“If they keep getting farther and farther behind in core classes because they’re only in English immersion, and as a result don’t pass AIMS, how are they going to graduate?” she asked.
Julia Lindberg, Sunnyside’s director of language acquisition and development, is concerned about the state plan because “there is very little time for math, science and social studies and no time for electives.”
Favela agreed. “It prevents English-language learners from having the same quality education day that our English-speaking students have,” she said. “We don’t want to go back to the days where students were segregated. We’ve gotten past that and we don’t want to go back.”
The Sunnyside alternative would provide two hours of segregated immersion in English but then a second two hours of an “applied block” for math and science where the English learners in high school and middle school “can use the English they have learned in classes with students who know more English than they do,” she said.
With math and science within the four-hour total, room would be made for other required classes and electives.
At the elementary level, it would mean pupils would be in homeroom classes most of the day, and pulled out only for two hours for English immersion.
“We don’t just want them to learn how to say, ‘I have a red hat.’ We want (them) to be learning skills they will need to pass the AIMS test,” Favela said.
She said the state is using the “time on task” concept: the longer you do something, the more you’ll learn it.
“But that doesn’t mean it will be quality education,” she said.
Sunnyside Superintendent Manuel Isquierdo also is concerned about the state model.
“We need to stand up and say, with respect to the state Education Department, ‘We do not agree with this model, and we think we have a better way,’ ” he said. “It’s not educationally sound. It’s not research-based and it’s not good for our children. We cannot stand by and let this model go through.
“This model, by design, says we have to segregate our English and non-English speaking students,” he said. “We all know non-English speaking students learn when they can integrate with English speakers. That’s a main way they learn.”
The soundness of the plan is not the only concern. School districts across the state initially said they needed between $275 million and $300 million to implement the state model.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne estimated the cost at $20 million; the Legislature authorized $40 million.
But $40 million is what TUSD officials initially estimated that district, alone, would need to pay for teachers, the extra classrooms needed, training, supplies and testing materials, among other things.
And TUSD and Sunnyside, it appears, would get no additional funding from the state, at least to begin with.
Still, Horne is telling schools this week they shouldn’t avoid enrolling students in immersion classes while the funding issue is debated.
Sunnyside is getting no money from the state, Isquierdo said.
“That’s because the state expects (Sunnyside and TUSD) to ‘offset’ the cost by using federal funds for low-income students first,” Favela said.
Isquierdo said, “The state is making us reassign those federal funds first and then when they see we have used all those, they’ll consider giving us some money. But that’s a significant challenge. We need those funds where they’re being used now.”
Sunnyside board member Magdalena Barajas is perplexed. “It’s unlawful to spend federal funds for state mandates, so the state is asking us to break the law,” she said.
That’s the argument Sahuarita Unified School District officials cited to avoid complying with the mandate.
Favela said implementing four hours of immersion at Sunnyside schools would cost $2 million “just for teachers. Our initial budget was $8 million for more classrooms and more teachers.”
TUSD’s minimal cost would be $7.5 million, Holmes said, “but that would just cover the number of teachers needed.”
Sunnyside needs 20 more teachers “and where would we put those teachers? There aren’t enough classrooms, and how do we pay for the new teachers?” Favela asked.
The mandate is “contradictory to research on how children learn English. They need specialized time to learn English, but we believe four hours is excessive, and we want them to be in classes where math and science is taught to English and non-English speakers,” she said.
Favela said more than 30 percent of Sunnyside students come from homes where a language other than English is spoken. “But that doesn’t mean those students are broken.”
Sunnyside school board president Eva Dong said the district plan was put together “with our experts in the field of language acquisition. It’s not that the district didn’t want students to learn English in an efficient manner,” she said. “We’re not doing this model because we don’t want them to learn English. It’s a moral issue to segregate them from their peers. It takes us back to what we fought hard to eliminate.”
Isquierdo isn’t optimistic that Sunnyside’s alternative model will be approved: “The state seems pretty determined that any alternative must go along with the four-hour model,” he said.
TUSD’s Holmes also told the district school board this spring that approval was not assured.
But he said TUSD’s move to the two-hour block will advance students in learning English. “Now they have only a half an hour,” he said.
He said he agreed with what the state was asking for in grammar, reading, vocabulary and writing: “They are areas students need. But I don’t believe it should be a four-hour block.”
Holmes said TUSD “needs to comply with the law, but we have to have some serious negotiations for the timeline of implementation. In reality, without additional funds, we will not be prepared to implement the plan as the state wants us to for the start of the coming school year. We have already prepared for the 2 plus 2 plan.”
TUSD and Sunnyside officials said they don’t plan to sue over the issue at this point.
“We have received some guidance from OCR (federal Office of Civil Rights), but we have not spoken to any attorneys about this,” Holmes said.
But at Sunnyside, it could be a matter of time. Lindberg said the district will seek legal advice if its plan is not accepted by the state.
Los Amigos Elementary fifth-grade dual language students show off their science project last school year. They are (counterclockwise from top left) Yarlene Lara, Ricardo Morales, Saul Parra, Lupita Moreno and Briana Pandula. The state plan would replace dual language classes with English immersion.
ELL instruction timeline
1992: A Nogales family sues the state for not properly teaching English to non-English speaking students.
2000: The state is ordered to create a plan to adequately teach English-language learners.
2006: The plan, House Bill 2064, becomes law.
2000-’08: The plan is in and out of the courts. Critics say it is not properly funded and disagree with how it would be implemented.
2008: The state mandates that schools with sufficient numbers of English-language learners segregate them into English immersion classes for four hours a day starting in the 2008-09 school year.
January 2008: More than 100 state school district superintendents go to the state Capitol to contest the mandate and how it would be funded.
April 2008: The Legislature approves $40.6 million for ELL instruction for the 2008-09 school year. School districts said it would cost nearly $275 million. It becomes law without the approval of Gov. Janet Napolitano, who refuses to sign the bill.
May 2008: An attorney for parents in the initial lawsuit asks a federal judge to rule the $40.6 million is insufficient.
2 plus 2
The basics of TUSD’s and Sunnyside’s “2 plus 2″ plans:
• Students are removed from regular classes for two hours a school day for English immersion.
• Students spend two more hours a school day in integrated classes where they get specialized English support, but are learning other subjects at the same time.
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Arizona Dept. of Education