Teacher Katrina Lujan works with English-language learner students at Challenger Middle School in the Sunnyside Unified School District. Educators say students like hers will benefit greatly from a change in state rules for teaching ELL students.

Katrina Lujan’s 13-or-so seventh-graders appeared lively last Friday afternoon as they laughed and joked with one another during a class break at Challenger Middle School.

While most of the students spoke to each other in English — very loudly — a few more subdued students opted to chat softly in their native tongue, Spanish. The walls surrounding the students were plastered with motivational posters and a hefty amount of plaid wrapping paper.

“Because they had AZELLA testing,” Lujan said.

The Arizona English Language Learner Assessment, she clarified. Lujan’s students, who have been identified as intermediate English-language learners based on their AZELLA scores, take the test yearly to track their mastery of English, their second language.

Her students took the writing, reading and grammar portions last week, but still had their oral proficiency test coming up. So she covered the instructional posters on the wall. No cheating.

A loud iPhone timer sounded — Lujan’s cue to get the first part of the students’ highly structured, two-hour English language development block started. The students quieted down almost immediately.

They would start the day with an hour of writing and reading comprehension and end it with an hour of grammar, Lujan said. Today, they would edit and peer-review reading summaries they had written in a prior class.

“OK, ready?” Lujan asked her students. Yes, they replied, more or less in unison. They got to work.

Arizona has required students like Lujan’s, known as ELLs, to spend hours of their school day, every day, segregated from the rest of the student body in what has come to be known as the English-only language development block.

Lujan’s intermediate ELL students spend two hours a day in the English immersion block, while beginner ELL students stay there for four — the majority of their school day.

The state has mandated English immersion blocks for ELL instruction since the late 2000s, despite arguments by public school educators and researchers that the model doesn’t work.

Last Thursday, however, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill that eliminates the four-hour block model and gives districts far more autonomy in how they instruct ELL students in Arizona’s public schools.

Under the new law, kids in grades kindergarten through 6 are required to spend 120 minutes per day, 500 minutes per week or 300 hours per year in English immersion. Students in grades 7 through 12 have to spend 100 minutes per day, 500 minutes per week or 300 hours per year in immersion.

The law also allows school districts and charter schools to utilize structured English immersion and “alternative English instruction” models of their choosing, as long as they are research-based and approved by the State Board of Education.

The Legislature attempted to pass similar legislation last year, but Senate President Steve Yarbrough shot it down in a Senate Rules Committee hearing.

THE PATH FORWARD

Local school districts and educators who spoke with the Arizona Daily Star voiced support for the new English language development requirements and the slashing of the four-hour block.

“I kind of have to pinch myself because we’ve waited for this so long,” said Patricia Sandoval-Taylor, the director of language acquisition services in the Tucson Unified School District, the city’s largest.

Roughly 5,000 of TUSD’s 45,000 students are classified as ELLs, Sandoval-Taylor said, and the district has been fighting for autonomy in the way it teaches them for years.

Quashing the four-hour block, specifically, has been a top lobbying priority for TUSD in the last few years, Sandoval-Taylor said, because the block severely hindered high school ELL students’ ability to achieve academically and graduate on time.

With the new law, TUSD hopes to restructure its curriculum so ELL high school students can earn credits toward graduation in content areas like history or science while also fulfilling English language development requirements.

Under the previous block model, students could not earn content credit and would end up failing or dropping out of school because they were so far behind on credits.

TUSD is also considering ways to get ELL students involved in more dual-language curriculum programs — a possibility that had previously been off the table since 2000, when the voter-initiated Proposition 203 banned bilingual education for students who weren’t already fluent in English.

The new requirements don’t explicitly address dual-language education for ELL students — they only mandate English immersion for the set number of minutes every day, week or year.

But given the new curriculum flexibility, Sandoval-Taylor hopes there is room for school districts to incorporate dual-language aspects into the alternate English language development models they will submit to the state for approval.

“We’re hoping (the new law) will allow more (ELL) students to have access to dual-language programs and still meet the requirements that the state has in place,” Sandoval-Taylor said. “Our (dual-language) programs have lots of research to back up student achievement.”

Dual-language curriculums often lead to better English acquisition for English-language learners down the line, said Mary Carol Combs, a professor at the University of Arizona’s College of Education.

“Research has consistently shown that if you teach a child in his or her first language and develop literacy abilities, those abilities transfer into English,” Combs said. “What that essentially means is the more instruction a school provides in Spanish, the more English it will yield down the road.”

The Sunnyside Unified School District, a district whose student body is almost 13 percent English-language learning, also hopes to give ELL students some degree of dual-language education.

Sunnyside used to offer rich two-way dual-language programs for ELL and English-proficient students, but had to “slowly abandon them” after Proposition 203 banned ELLs from participating in them, according to district Superintendent Steve Holmes.

The district had to ditch the programs because there weren’t enough students who could enroll in them, after losing that critical base of Spanish-speaking ELL students.

“In an ideal setting, we would have the flexibility we would need for students or parents that want to take advantage of a structured English immersion model, but we would also have equal flexibility for students that want to have accessibility to a dual-language program,” Holmes said.

Holmes hopes to decrease segregation of ELLs under whatever model Sunnyside ends up proposing to the state, he said.

The isolating aspect of ELL segregation affects students negatively emotionally and socially, he said.

“I do believe it has created a stigma for students,” Holmes said. “That lack of exposure into other settings also creates a potential social barrier for students who aren’t going to feel comfortable because they don’t interact with other students in the other (non-block) parts of the day.”

CULTURAL IMPACT

Tucson ELL teachers hope to see districts take advantage of the flexibility the new requirements provide.

Miriam Romero, an ELL resource teacher at Carrillo K-5 and Arizona’s English Language Teacher of the Year, said she is glad the four-hour block has been mitigated, but thinks of it more as a “good first step” than a final destination.

“I’m glad we’re moving away from (the block) and I hope we can have a more inclusive way of teaching English in our schools because it’s the right thing to do,” Romero said. “It’s the necessary thing to do. In the real world, (students) are all going to be together, so they should in school.”

Romero said she was never a fan of the four-hour block because of the segregative and achievement-related consequences, but she also loathed it on a more personal level.

The idea of segregating ELLs into classrooms isolated from the general student population reminded her of stories her grandparents told her about their days in school as non-native English speakers — where they too were segregated from the mainstream student population, even if they could speak, read and write in English.

“At that time, it was if you had a last name that sounded Hispanic, they would ask you questions very quickly in English,” Romero said. “They wouldn’t translate it. Nothing. And if the kid didn’t answer everything in English or was shy, they would be put into these separate classes.”

Romero said she never wanted her students to feel like her grandparents did, that Spanish was lesser in some way and that English was the only “academic” language. That’s why she is happy the English language development model is changing.

Like Holmes and Sandoval-Taylor, Romero said she hopes the state will consider allowing dual-language education for ELL students.

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“With that flexibility, I hope it’s not just minutes — I hope its flexibility to maybe bring in kids’ native language into the classroom, as well,” Romero said. “And then maybe even cutting the two hours.”

WHY NOW?

There is a lingering question following the state’s push to change ELL requirements: Why now?

Why are legislators listening to school districts, educators and researchers after decades of seemingly sticking their heads in the sand?

“I think there’s a will now,” Holmes said. “Demographically, you’re seeing shifts across districts where (ELL education) used to be the problem of only a few districts.”

Legislators are also realizing the breadth of the issue, Holmes said, because of hard AZMerit, AZELLA, high school dropout and graduation data showing Arizona’s ELL students are struggling and have been for decades.

Francesca Lopez, an associate dean at the UA’s College of Education who researches ELL student achievement, concurs with Holmes. A prime example, Lopez said, is Arizona’s ELL student graduation rate.

Only 18 percent of Arizona’s ELLs graduate from high school. That’s the worst rate in the country, Lopez said.

Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress also shows the failings of ELL education in Arizona under the four-hour block system.

When you look at NAEP scores from fourth-grade ELL students in Arizona, California and Texas — similar states with similar ELL populations — you can see Arizona’s students consistently perform the worst, Lopez said.

In California, students scored slightly better, on average. The state, like Arizona, mandates English-only instruction for ELLs, but allows waivers for bilingual education if parents want it.

In Texas, scores far exceeded those in California or Arizona. That’s because Texas mandates bilingual education for ELLs, Lopez said.

“Bilingual children outperformed monolingual children,” Lopez said. “We know through research that speaking two languages, learning two languages is very advantageous to our cognitive abilities. And it’s not seen immediately, but it’s seen over time.”

THE END OF THE DAY

As Katrina Lujan’s fifth period with her ELL students came to a close, they wrote a brief about what work they need to do on their reading summaries at the start of next period.

“What happened with your body (paragraph) yesterday?” Lujan asked a girl wearing a pink hoodie.

“I didn’t put it in order?” the girl responded with hesitation.

“You didn’t put it in order!” Lujan said with a smile, apparently happy to see the dots connecting for one of her students.

The iPhone alarm blared again.

“All right, three-minute break!” Lujan said with a raised voice. “Don’t be late!”

The students ran out the door in a frenzy, save for a few who stayed back and worked more on their briefs, confused expressions plastered on their faces.

Contact reporter Brenna Bailey at bbailey@tucson.com or 520-573-4279. On Twitter: @brennanonymous.

Reporter

Brenna explains how national, state and local K-12 education issues impact Tucson schools. She's a proud product of Arizona public schools. Send her news tips, story ideas and existential life questions at bbailey@tucson.com.