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Arizona school districts have been given permission to cut the time some English-language learners spend in a mandatory immersion program known as the four-hour block.

The change, approved by the Arizona State Board of Education, will give students who have reached a certain level of proficiency a more well-rounded education, officials said.

That’s especially true for middle- and high-schoolers who have had to forgo elective classes to satisfy state law, which requires four hours of instruction in reading, writing, speaking and grammar each day. The block of time isolated those students from their English-speaking peers.

And with only about seven hours of instruction in a school day, the remaining time was generally filled with math, science and intervention classes. That meant the students had no time for electives, which includes classes like dance, automotive, culinary arts or photography.

“The options given to students to chose their schedules and be creative and having a nice high school experience wasn’t happening for our English-language learners,” said Mark Alvarez, director of TUSD’s language acquisition department. “The ability to have electives that interest you is really an opportunity for enrichment and it’s often what keeps many kids in school.”

The amount of time that can be cut from the four-hour block is dependent on student’s grade level, proficiency in English and how far they are in English-language development.

For elementary students who demonstrate intermediate proficiency and are in at least their second year of English-language development instruction, schools may cut up to one hour from the four-hour block.

Students with intermediate proficiency in high school or middle school who are in at least their second year of instruction may have up to two hours cut from their block time.

Reduced block hours are not available to students in their first year of immersion or those who fall below the intermediate proficiency level.

The way immersion instruction is delivered on a daily basis is also becoming more flexible, Alvarez said.

Previously, a full, uninterrupted hour had to be devoted to each of the four content areas. They could not be weaved together, even though writing and grammar are clearly connected.

“An hour of nothing but grammar for a kindergartner – or any grade level – is challenging,” said Alvarez. He noted that teachers typically integrate subjects. “Making those connections between subjects creates a deeper understanding for kids,” he said.

Understanding the benefits of those connections, teachers will now be allowed to integrate reading, speaking and vocabulary into one block and writing and grammar into a second block.

“We feel very optimistic about this, it’s what we had been saying in the district for a long time — that the subjects need to be integrated to improve achievement,” Alvarez said.

One plea that has gone unheard, however, is the continuation of what many educators feel is an exclusionary practice — separating English-language learners from their English-speaking peers.

Only in special circumstances — like when a school has too few students to justify hiring a teacher — can the children be integrated.

“The majority of our classrooms are still isolated,” Alvarez said. “Our students still don’t have the English-speaking models that we feel are important to have.”

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at ahuicochea@tucson.com or 573-4175. On Twitter: @AlexisHuicochea