Bilingual Blues

This is not the way your grandfather learned English

"We have standards for everything," says Kent Scribner director of multicultural curriculum for the Roosevelt School District, "standards for math, for science; but we don't have standards for English language development where a kid comes to this country, and in six months he should know this, this and this. If teachers were given a road map, it would be that much more effective."

"The problem is not the language," says Jose Fonseca, a middle school math teacher from Tucson. "The problem is how to motivate students for learning anything."

The problem is not the language. The problem is that too many officials can't get beyond the language.

"I'm just frustrated with how badly it works for our kids, and more than that, our inability to discuss it," says Keegan. "We can't get past this stuff."

The stuff of a statewide bilingual education policy is working its way through both houses of the Legislature. The approach is disparately bipartisan.

The Senate bill, backed by Democrats, seeks to strengthen the bilingual/ESL education system. The House bill, a Republican effort, mostly seeks to limit the state funds that can be spent on bilingual and ESL programs, which isn't very much anyway.

According to the Department of Education, last year, Arizona schools spent $458 million on bilingual ed and ESL programs. Only 3 percent--or about $15 million--of that money came from state funds. The feds kicked in another $100 million, but the lion's share came out of district pockets, $240 million. That means that rich districts can afford better programs than poor districts. And guess which districts have the bulk of the LEP students?

Senator Joe Eddie Lopez spent his school years with teachers trying "to impress on me almost the sin of speaking Spanish."

"The kids in bilingual programs, as bad as they may be, are doing better than kids who are not," he says.

The bill he wrote, which still has to fight its way out of the Senate, seeks to reform rather than eliminate bilingual education. He penciled in an escape clause for parents who want their kids out of such programs. He insisted that the Department of Education set standards and then enforce them to make sure that programs were meeting some sort of goals. Among the standards would be redefined exit criteria. The standards would establish a point at which teachers would realize that a student was not being reached, and subsequently be required to take more heroic measures to provide extra help. He requested funds to do so. And he wanted LEP students to be exempt from AIMS (Arizona Instrument to Measure Sandards) testing, which all students are supposed to pass before graduating high school.

Furthermore, as written, Lopez's legislation would have provided tuition incentives so that more university students would commit to being bilingual or ESL teachers.

The bill was gutted in the Senate's Education Committee. Lopez reinstalled much of its content in the Appropriations Committee, but the AIMS exemption, the teacher incentives and the money to carry out programs were all taken away.

Laura Knaperek's House bill has already passed the House and is on its way to the Senate. Knaperek lifted long sections of Lopez's bill, and installed clauses assuring parental consent for participation in bilingual or ESL programs, a key Republican concern nationwide. But the key to Knaperek's proposal is to set time limits on programs; originally, she wanted ESL or bilingual services to be terminated after three years for each student. Ultimately, she amended the bill to cut off funding after three years, which as one lobbyist said, "would allow the student to continue in the program on the district dime."

Knaperek's bill exempts "indigenous" Native American languages from the three-year constraint so as not to conflict with other existing laws. Of that clause, House Minority Leader Robert McLendon asked in committee, "How far back do you have to go to be indigenous?"

Back to statehood, responded Knaperek's research assistant.
McLendon pointed out that there might have been a few Spanish speakers living in Arizona before it became a state. He drawled toward his punch line.

"So would you consider Spanish to be indigenous?" he asked.
How much research did Knaperek leave to her assistant and how much did she do herself?

"It's not really an issue in my district," Knaperek tells New Times. "Most of the programs are ESL programs, and [in] most of the adult programs which I have visited there are people from all over. So you've got four, five, six different languages in a classroom. I sat through about an hour of it, and that's about all I could take."

"It's just tedious. It was immersion. So if we're teaching immersion for adults, why aren't we teaching immersion for kids?"

Perhaps because it's tedious--among other reasons.
And how did Knaperek arrive at the three-year limit for services?
"It was basically from anecdotal stories I was hearing in the community."

Language-learning experts say it can take as long as seven years for a child to become proficient in a second language. The scant 12 percent of Arizona students who manage to reclassify as "English Proficient" do so in about four and a half years; that is a length of time more comfortable for Lisa Keegan.

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