There are 150,000 schoolchildren in Arizona who don't know English. They're labeled ELLs — English-language learners. For four hours a day, ELLs are drilled on vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar.
Up until the late 1990s, schools in Arizona relied on various approaches to teaching English-language learners. Bilingual education was especially popular, although with mixed results, so it was banned in 2000.
In its place, the state mandated a highly prescriptive four-hour block called Structured English Immersion that some teachers today call inadequate.
"I think the four-hour block really is limiting for teachers," says first grade ELL teacher Darlene Galindo. "I think that it's limiting for students. I don't necessarily agree with it." As far as Galindo is concerned, it's a law meant to be broken.
On a recent morning, instead of being drilled on the rules and structure of language, Galindo's fidgety first-graders are totally immersed in alfalfa plants, their latest science experiment.
"I feel that math and science are very important for language development and students are able to use it in context," Galindo says.
But if a state inspector came in and saw what she was doing, would she get in trouble?
"It depends," she says. As long as her principal is OK with what she's doing, she's not worried, Galindo says.
Arturo Sanchez, her principal at G. Frank Davidson Elementary in West Phoenix, doesn't like the state-mandated policy either, because he says it boils down to a separate curriculum for ELL students.
"You're basically creating Mexican rooms," Sanchez says.
At least that's how students see it, Sanchez says.
"I don't think it's an exaggeration. The majority are Hispanic and the majority don't have English as their first language, so you can see that right away. The time they have with dominant English speakers is very limited," he says.
Sanchez says the isolation and watered-down curriculum are barriers to students' academic success. "And we were seeing it in the data. Even kids coming out of the system who were considered 'English proficient' — they were going into classrooms with mainstream students, and they weren't able to keep up," Sanchez says.
That's why Sanchez says he has allowed teachers to circumvent the state's Structured English Immersion policy.
No one really knows how many schools are defying the state-mandated policy. The state seems to be looking the other way, but it still expects kids to function in a regular classroom within one year.
"Can the children function in an English classroom? The answer to that question is no," says Eugene Garcia, former dean of education at Arizona State University. He says one-fifth of Arizona's ELL students are so far behind that they have little or no chance of catching up to their English-speaking peers. If you spend four hours a day learning the structure of the English language, Garcia says, you will learn some English.
"What you're not picking up is how [English] is used in an academic context. That's what's lacking," he says.
Garcia says teachers have a right to be frustrated. Arizona's ELL model is just too prescriptive, too rigid.
But Tom Horne, Arizona's former state superintendent of public instruction, says, "I personally advocated allowing schools more flexibility if they could show good results." It was Horne who presided over most of the changes in the way schools deal with children who do not know English.
He admits that he was never a huge fan of the four-hour block. Maybe kids would be better off without it, he says. "If the numbers of [ELL] kids are small, they'll tend to learn English from their contemporaries, so you don't need to give them a four-hour model. You just throw them in, and they'll learn," Horne says.
Still, Horne insists that the Structured English Immersion program is not as bad as critics say. Nearly a third of ELL students last school year tested out successfully, the highest percentage ever.
State officials admit they don't know how many students are struggling and forced to return to their ELL program, but the U.S. Department of Education and even the Department of Justice have gotten so many complaints about it, they're conducting several investigations.
Horne, who is now Arizona's state attorney general, says the Structured English Immersion policy is the law and he is prepared to vigorously defend it, even if it means he has to fight it out in court.