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Updated May 5, 2013 - 3:22 pm

Ariz. Board of Education continues with English-immersion program fight

Arizona's Structured English Immersion program gives students four hours a day of language instruction - and only language, which critics say denies students the chance for other instruction. (Photo by Vaughn Hillyard and Jessica Goldberg/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON -- Vince Yanez understands what the Arizona Board of Education could be getting in to this year when it begins a "systematic review" of the state's English Language Learner program.

"Since the models had been created, there have been very strong opinions on both sides," said Yanez, the board's executive director.

"The models" he is referring to are Structured English Immersion, a state-mandated program that puts non-English-speaking students into English class for four hours a day.

"The opinions" include supporters who say the program quickly moves students into mainstream classes and critics who say it does not. The critics say that segregating children into language-only classes denies those students hours of class time in other subjects every day.

Both sides appear to agree on one thing: The other side already made up its mind on a program that affects about 70,000 schoolchildren, and is ignoring evidence it finds inconvenient.

Arizona is the only state that mandates a four-hour block of English for all non-English-speaking students, regardless of their age or proficiency.

The program grew out of a 2006 task force charged by the legislature with studying research-based models for English immersion. It followed voter approval of a 2000 proposition that required an "intensive one-year English immersion program to teach the language as quickly as possible" to students.

The task force took it a step further, requiring a four-hour model for all ELL students beginning in 2008-2009. The goal was to quickly get students proficient in English, moving them to regular classes in as little as a year.

But rather than mainstreaming children in the short-term, critics say the program hurts students in both the short and long term.

In Structured English Immersion classes, there is no other content than English. So while immersion students are learning pronunciation, syntax, vocabulary and semantics, they are losing instruction their peers are getting in science and social studies and other courses.

That makes it harder to graduate in four years, and keeps students from getting an academic vocabulary that they will be hard-pressed to learn outside the classroom, said Eugene Garcia, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University.

"You should be learning science vocabulary, math vocabulary, math phraseology, what is two plus two, all that stuff that is school-based, which kids aren't going to get outside of school," Garcia said.

Oscar Jimenez-Castellanos, an assistant professor of education policy at Arizona State, said in a March report for the Morrison Institute for Public Policy that immersion is not helping ELL students.

"(The four-hour block) is, at a minimum, no better than what was done before," Jimenez-Castellanos said. "But, the majority of the research shows that English-language learners are actually decreasing their achievement."

Not so, said Alan Maguire, former chairman of the task force that set up and oversaw the immersion program. He said critics make up their minds about the program before gathering data.

"Many of the people doing research have a position that predates their research. The task force did not," Maguire said. "The task force had no preconceived position. Our position was, do what's best for kids."

Maguire said mainstreaming students should be the primary purpose of the ELL program, because students can't learn content until they understand the language it's being taught in. People who say kids are spending too much time learning English are missing the point, he said.

"Language is fundamental to learning," Maguire said. "You have to accomplish your language proficiency before you start to take other content areas."

Marlene Johnston, the state director of English Language Learner Assessments, agreed that quickness to English proficiency is important.

"Isn't it better for them to get proficient and be in a mainstream and keeping up with their (peers)?" she asked.

Maguire noted that the rate at which ELL students test into mainstream classes improved from about 22 percent before the immersion program began to 30 percent today.

Garcia called those numbers "a facade."

He said the higher rate simply reflects a change in how the number was calculated. The test to get out of ELL was made easier and kindergarteners, who mainstream faster than older students, were included in the calculations for the first time.

"What you've got, basically, is a facade," Garcia said. "The king has no clothes from a research perspective."

A June 2011 report from the Arizona Auditor General's Office agreed that other factors could have caused the increase, but that data was not reliable enough for a complete conclusion.

Not every English-language learner in the state is in an immersion class. Parents can pull children out, or students can get waivers to go into a dual-language program.

Schools with fewer than 20 ELL students in a three-grade span can put them in individual language learner programs, in which they get four hours of English per day, but aren't segregated from their peers.

Time with peers is important, Garcia said, which is why immersion is counter-productive. By being separated from the rest of the school for four hours a day, English-language learners lose a valuable opportunity to speed language comprehension by mingling with native speakers.

"The one thing we've learned about children learning language in school is that the best way to do it is to expose them to other individual kids who are better than them at language," Garcia said.

Opponents also note that the state is not meeting its goal of mainstreaming students in one year.

Johnston concedes that Arizona ELL students take closer to three years to move into mainstream classes. But she notes that is still faster than the national rate of six or seven years for students in programs like bilingual education or English as a second language.

Garcia was on the original task force and voted against the four-hour model, not because he didn't think it would work in some districts, but because he wanted more options for schools.

"This approach would be OK if it was one of the models," he said. "We should let people, essentially, determine the models and hold them to the output."

But Maguire defends the immersion program.

"It really is a good program for kids," he said.

Program oversight moved this year from the task force to the state board, "and that conversation is going to transfer over to the board now," Yanez said.

He said the first step for the board is to understand the immersion model, hearing from experts on where the program has succeeded and where it might not have lived up to expectations. Yanez said it will be a few months before the issue comes up.

"(The board will) give it an honest look before any decisions are made," Yanez said.

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