MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Im Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And Im Melissa Block.
Arizona is facing scrutiny about the way it educates students who dont speak, read or write English. Some teachers, researchers and the federal government say the state's policy is leaving thousands of children behind.
NPR's Claudio Sanchez has followed this issue for years and he has this report.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: There are 150,000 school children in Arizona who don't know English. They're labeled ELLs - English Language Learners.
Ms. APRIL FRALEY (Teacher, G. Frank Davidson Elementary School): Consonants diagraph are two letters - show me with your fingers - that make one sound.
SANCHEZ: Like these eight and nine year olds in April Fraley second grade class at G. Frank Davidson Elementary in west Phoenix.
Ms. FRALEY: Example of T-H is - thuh-thuh-thuh. Another example...
SANCHEZ: For four hours a day, these English Language Learners 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.
Ms. DARLENE GALINDO (Teacher, G. Frank Davidson Elementary School): I think that the four-hour block really is limiting for teachers.
SANCHEZ: First grade ELL teacher Darlene Galindo.
Ms. GALINDO: I think that it's limiting for students. I don't necessarily agree with it. But...
SANCHEZ: It's the law.
Ms. GALINDO: Yeah.
SANCHEZ: As far as Galindo is concerned, it's a law meant to be broken.
Ms. GALINDO: Did you guys notice on your grass when it grew that you have some sprouts that are alfalfa and some that are rye?
(Soundbite of children)
SANCHEZ: On this particular morning, instead of drilling students on the rules and structure of language, Galindo's fidgety first-graders are totally immersed in alfalfa plants - their latest science experiment.
Ms. GALINDO: I feel that math and science are very important for language development. And, you know, the students are able to use it in context.
SANCHEZ: But if a state or an inspector of some sort came in here and saw what you were doing, you wouldnt get into trouble would you?
Ms. GALINDO: It depends.
SANCHEZ: Galindo says as long as her principal is okay with what she's doing, she's not worried.
Arturo Sanchez, her principal, doesn't like the state-mandated policy either, because he says it boils down to a separate curriculum for ELL students.
Mr. ARTURO SANCHEZ (Principal, G. Frank Davidson Elementary School): You're basically creating Mexican rooms.
SANCHEZ: At least that's how students see it, says Sanchez, a stigma.
Mr. SANCHEZ: I don't think it's an exaggeration. The majority of them are Hispanic. And the majority of them do not have English as their first language, so you can see that right away. The time that they have with dominant English speakers is very limited.
SANCHEZ: Sanchez says the isolation and watered-down curriculum are barriers to students' academic success.
Mr. SANCHEZ: And we were seeing that in the data. Even kids that were coming out of the system, that were now considered English proficient, they were going into classrooms with mainstream students and they weren't able to keep up.
SANCHEZ: 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.
Dr. EUGENE GARCIA (Vice President, Education Partnerships, Arizona State University): Can the children function in an English classroom? And the answer to that question is no.
SANCHEZ: Eugene Garcia is a former dean of education at Arizona State University. He says a fifth of Arizona's ELL students are so far behind, 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.
Dr. GARCIA: What you're not picking up is how it is used in an academic context. That's what's lacking.
SANCHEZ: Garcia says teachers have a right to be frustrated. Arizona's ELL model is just too prescriptive, too rigid.
Mr. TOM HORNE (Former Superintendent of Public Instruction, Arizona Department of Education): There's an extent to which I agree.
SANCHEZ: Tom Horne is Arizona's former state superintendent of public instruction, who presided over most of the changes in the way schools deal with children who don't know English.
Mr. HORNE: I personally advocated allowing schools more flexibility if they could show good results.
SANCHEZ: Horne admits that he was never a huge fan of the four-hour block. Maybe kids would be better off without it, he says.
Mr. HORNE: If the numbers of 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.
SANCHEZ: Still, Horne insists the Structured English Immersion program is not as bad as critics say. Nearly a third of ELL students last 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. Education Department 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's prepared to vigorously defend it.
Mr. HORNE: Even if it means I have to fight them in court.
SANCHEZ: Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
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