Original URL: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/news/articles/1229ruelas29.html

Checking up on English lesson plan
The Arizona Republic
Dec. 29, 2003 12:00 AM
Richard Ruelas

The state monitors walk into the classroom and try to unobtrusively take seats in the back as Mrs. Moreno is teaching her third-graders math by telling them that Pete and Repeat were sitting on a fence. "Pete fell off. Who was left?" she asks. "Repeat," the class says in unison. "Pete and Repeat were sitting on a fence . . .

"What am I doing?" she asks. "Repeating." She asks what that means. Some hands go up and Mrs. Moreno calls on Karen. "Say it again and again and again," Karen says. She whispers, "Yes!" at getting the right answer.

The two monitors sent over by the Arizona Department of Education watch this and take notes on orange sheets of paper attached to clipboards. They are here to check that teachers are giving instruction in English. A voter-approved initiative banned bilingual education in favor of English immersion.

More than half of the children who start kindergarten at Lela Alston Elementary School in west Phoenix speak only Spanish. The theory behind the law was that the best method for students to learn English was to be taught entirely in English, with a sprinkling of Spanish used as a backup.

Opponents of the law, called Proposition 203 on the 2000 ballot, warned that teaching in a language students didn't understand would lead to a classroom full of blank stares. The initiative passed by a 2-to-1 ratio.

Tom Horne, the state superintendent of public instruction, has ordered the classroom monitors to ensure schools are complying with the law. Horne made tough enforcement of the bilingual ban a centerpiece of his largely self-financed campaign.

The checklist the monitors use includes criteria such as "nearly all classroom instruction is in English," "curriculum and presentation are in English and designed for English learners," and "minimal amount of the child's native language is used."

After 20 minutes or so in third grade, the team moves to second grade. It's Mrs. Painter's class. She is teaching them how to write a persuasive essay on why a dog is a good pet.

"Is that the best word I could use?" Mrs. Painter asks the class, pointing to the word "good" on the easel. The class, sitting in a bunch on the floor in front of her, shakes "no." She asks them to come up with other words. "Talk to your neighbor," she says. The kids start chattering. The list compiled by these second-graders, most of whom started learning English three years ago, includes these words: nice, kind, terrific, friendly, generous and rambunctious.

The monitors are impressed. So is Principal Debbie Hutson, who is in the classroom with them. Mrs. Painter sends the children off to their desks, which are grouped together in five sets of four, to write an essay about why a kangaroo would be a great, or maybe even a rambunctious, pet. The children chatter. The chatter is in English.

Language got lost in the bilingual education debate. It was supposedly over which method of English instruction worked best. It ended up with one side painted as anti-immigrant; the other fearing cultural genocide.

But immersion is law. It is no longer theory but practice.

The monitors move to a kindergarten class. Mrs. DiNapoli is pointing to an oversized book titled "I Need a Lunchbox." She asks students what they put in a lunchbox. "Put leche," one child says, mixing in the Spanish word for milk.

The teacher flips the pages of the book. The students read along quietly as a boy frets about his sister getting a lunchbox while he has none. When the book reaches its climax, the boy's father has a surprise for him. The children all guess the ending. "A lunchbox."

At this school, it looks like students are picking up English just fine. By third grade, it's tough to tell native speakers from "English learners."

The monitors, Debbie Francis and Marilyn Cahill, say this visit has been typical of their seven others this year. Every so often, they will find one teacher in the school who has obviously been teaching in Spanish. "The exceptions really stand out," Francis says. In one, the teacher spoke to the students in English, but they responded in Spanish.

The monitors huddle over paperwork in an office. I duck into the principal's office next door. I had asked early in the school year to accompany the monitors on a visit. Months later, I was told to show up at Alston Elementary. I had the feeling this school was handpicked, that I was brought here because the children would show the law was working.

Hutson, the principal, says her school is unique in some ways. It opened three years ago, and knowing that the bilingual ban was in effect, she selected a staff of teachers that she knew could handle English immersion.

"There (is) so much language support here," she says. Students are grouped in classrooms so that two Spanish speakers sit next to two English speakers. This helps "model" the language, she says. It also is an arrangement that might not be possible at other schools with fewer native English speakers.

The research says that students in English immersion tend to fall behind a little bit more in each grade level. Some slip more than others, depending on whether they grow up in a largely English-speaking part of town, or only speak English in the classroom.

These students could prove that that research is bunk. In one isolated visit, they seem to be grasping the language. But this is one school, and one that is blessed with a good ratio of English speakers and a talented staff. Its test scores are considered well above average when compared to similar schools.

Even still, its third-graders' reading scores rank near the lowest-third of the nation. And its overall test scores are below average.

For right now, the monitors can check to see if teachers are giving instruction in English.

But whether Spanish-speaking students are actually learning, that will take years to discover.

Reach Ruelas at (602) 444-8473 or richard.ruelas@arizonarepublic.com.