In December, Emmanuel, a hypothetical yet typical student from Honduras, moves to the U.S. with his father. Emmanuel, based on his age and previous schooling, is placed into seventh grade. He speaks very little English; more accurately, he can read things like advertisements, and understand a few basic words when spoken to. He knows the numbers and colors. They studied some English at his school back home.
Emmanuel has six classes per day. He is placed into English reading, English writing, English speaking and listening and English grammar, math and computer essentials. There is no room in his schedule for science, social studies or a music class. Emmanuel plays trumpet, and was hoping to be in the band at school, but that will have to wait.
Emmanuel makes quick progress. Within a few weeks, he is confident enough to ask his teachers if he can use the restroom or borrow a pencil, and he can understand a little of what his math teacher is saying. Computer class can be difficult, but he learns by doing, and he likes learning to type.
In February, Emmanuel has to take the AZELLA test. Unsurprisingly, his scores are low. It’s another year in four periods of ELD. He works hard in 8th grade, and his first year of high school, he makes it to intermediate level and only needs two periods of ELD. He finally gets an elective. Should he take his required year of P.E., or should he take band? No matter what his choice, he has a gap to close in science and social studies, now that he can understand at least some of the work.
This is the model of English language acquisition in Arizona. The model has some benefits for a new immigrant, such as giving the student intensive language instruction right away, but overall it can be clunky and often, especially at the elementary level, leads to a segregated environment that can last for years and can perpetuate conceptual gaps created during the years before the student is able to use English to learn. Dual-language programs do exist in Arizona, but they are few.
The rigidity of the current system is the result of a series of court decisions in Flores v. Arizona, and the policies that were developed in response. Even teachers who love teaching ELL’s often chafe against this model, yearning for more flexibility to integrate reading, writing, listening and speaking, or to introduce more content from other subjects (see here and here for some of colleague John Spencer’s thoughts from years past).
I started teaching English Language Development in an audit year, and “compliance” required redesigning our entire schedule one quarter into the year, and creating weeks and weeks of detailed lesson plans from a set of standards that literally takes an entire binder to house in printed form. It was intense.
Next year, our principal wants to do something radical in our traditional junior high school. She is creating five teams of teachers and students, and getting rid of the bell schedule. Each team will be allowed, within a general structure, to develop the use of time and space that best meets their students’ needs. We will also be moving toward competency-based grading and personalization of learning. Technology, collaboration, and flexibility will feature largely.
So much possibility! Wow.
But the legally required 4-hour block of English Language Development classes must meet daily. Even the two required hours for intermediate students imposes an awkward and complex rigidity onto what needs to be a flexible schedule. How will these students be included in flexible teams? If they aren’t, who will their math and science teachers be if all those teachers are working in other teams?
So many questions have clouded my thoughts these past few weeks.
And then… this week… the haze evaporates and into my reverie plops HB2435 (current draft as of 2/18). This bill, if passed, will eliminate the infamous 4-Hour ELD block and allow districts to develop their own research-based language acquisition programs. In the current draft, the hourly requirements would be more flexible, for one:
- Grades K-6: 120 minutes per day, 600 minutes per week, OR 360 hours per year.
- Grades 7-12: 100 minutes per day, 500 minutes per week, OR 300 hours per year.
The word “or” means everything. This means that a school with an alternative bell schedule could flexibly provide the hours required.
It seems almost too good to be true, but the bill passed out of committee this week. The bill is sponsored by Representative Paul Boyer (Republican, District 20), chairman of the House Education Committee, and was developed with various stakeholders. The Arizona Education Association played a large role in bringing the issue forward and building support for the policy, including acquiring policy guidance from nationally recognized linguistics and language expert Dr. Eugene Garcia.
According to Stephanie Parra, AEA Government Relations Director, support appears to be strong for the bill, and right now the debate is focusing on making sure that the bill conforms to all the legal requirements of the court case.
After so many years of policies which compromise public schools, the education profession and our students, it is hard for me to trust that this bill will make it into law. For once, though, I am unequivocally hopeful, and considering the possibilities for my future Emmanuels.
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