Arizona Republic
June 29, 2007

(Phoenix, AZ) Author: MIKE McCLELLAN, Special for The Republic Estimated printed pages: 3

In the past few days, The Arizona Republic has run some stories on English Language Learners in our state, the vast majority Spanish-speaking.

Tuesday's edition featured a story on the penalties a federal judge is threatening the state with if the Legislature doesn't increase the funding for ELL students. Trying to gauge the proper funding in a situation like this is difficult; that the Legislature adjourned without tackling the issue, though, speaks volumes about the majority's irresponsibility on this issue.

But a more revealing article was on Sunday's front page. The story by Karina Bland, "At Phoenix school, reading, if not test scores, is its own reward,"
reveals just how difficult educating ELL students is. And might suggest how money is a key to acquiring English.

I just wonder if the money we're talking about is what's in these families'
pockets. That is, how much of the problems associated with ELL is as much a function of poverty as language?

The article tells of a three-year cooperative effort by The Republic and Creighton Elementary School, an inner-city school with a large ELL population.

The paper's staff tutored students in reading for three years -- along with providing $120,000 in funding -- the logic being that students who do not read on grade level by the end of the third grade have grave problems throughout the rest of the schooling.

The results of the more than 1,700 hours of tutoring and the heroic efforts of what seems to be a dedicated staff? Of the 109 third-graders, only 15 read at grade level; 33 are near grade level; 61 are below grade level.

But here are possibly even more telling numbers:

Ninety-eight percent of these kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Fifty percent of the kids who begin a school year don't finish the year at the same school.

So are teachers fighting poverty more than language? Here's why I ask.

At my suburban high school, we have a growing number of ELL students, the vast majority from Mexico. Among the classes I teach is a senior remedial English class for those students who score the lowest on the AIMS writing test.

Here's what I've noticed in teaching that class for three years: The ELL learners are far from the same. In fact, they tend to divide themselves into two distinct groups, essentially the haves and have-nots.

The ELL kids who do better tend to be better dressed, better groomed, more optimistic about their chances in school. Not surprisingly, they also tend to have a larger family income.

For example, I taught three of these students in three different classes.
Which means they stayed at one school for their high school years.

They are all ambitious, one even being forced to live here by his family because he wants to be a pilot, and his family thinks getting an American education is his best bet for achieving that goal.

All three have graduated from high school and have enrolled in college, despite the costs they face. One even has a bank job to help her pay her way through college.

The other group looks poorer and acts more pessimistically. And they are also more transient. They show up for a semester, drop out, come back, transfer to charter schools, come back again, put in an effort but seem defeated by it all.

I'm not sure what this all shows, other than how difficult it is for a kid in poverty to get a good education, or any kind of education.

Add a second language to that, and it becomes almost impossible.

So will smaller classes, more tutoring and more time help these kids, as The Republic's Kathleen Ingley suggests? Of course. But as the paper found out, schools often cannot overcome the horrific disadvantages poverty imposes on kids.

Mike McClellan of Gilbert teaches English at Dobson High School in Mesa.
Edition: Final Chaser
Section: Chandler Republic
Page: 35