School adds emphasis on boosting English skills
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 8, 2005

Betty Reid

PHOENIX -Juan Figueroa feels alone when he tries to speak English in front of a roomful of native speakers.

"I stutter because the words are hard to say," said the fifth-grader, who speaks Spanish and needs his peers to translate for him. "I get embarrassed and I'm alone when I can't say English words."

Figueroa, 11, is one of 300 middle school students who added 45 minutes of English lessons to their school schedule this year at Sierra Vista in the Roosevelt School District.

The lessons were added to comply with a complaint filed by parents in 2000 with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.

The parents, including Reyna Polanco and Michael Pops, claimed that the south Phoenix district wasn't doing enough to teach English to its Spanish-speaking students.

Five years later, the Roosevelt district is finally taking steps to comply. District officials agreed to do several things, including overhauling its programs for students learning English and allowing the federal agency to monitor its activity while it worked to comply with the order.

More than a third of Roosevelt's students - 4,298 out of about 12,000 - were identified as English language learners this spring.

District officials said they that have tried teaching English learners in regular arts classes but that the approach did not work. Now they are staring over, adding 45 minutes of instruction for English language learners and English-proficient students.

Pops, whose daughter has moved on to high school since the complaint was filed, said he is unhappy with the length of time the district took. "How much more do our children deserve to be shortchanged in south Phoenix?" Pops asked. Pops' complaint deals with the district's failure to get more parents involved at the schools using Title 1, federal money given to children who are poor and who traditionally lag behind on test scores.

Though the district built a welcome center, Pops said he would have liked to have parents outline improvements in Title 1 funding and have had a role about how to address student academic achievement.

Polanco was elected to a seat on the Roosevelt governing school board in 2004 and now says the district is working with ELL students while at the same time abiding by the English Only law that passed in 2000. No parent has complained to her about a child receiving an inadequate dose of English lessons, Polanco said.

"Maybe one or two parents are not satisfied," she said. "I haven't heard complaints from parents. This is very crucial for me. If a parent said, 'Miss Polanco, this is my complaint about the school and a lack of English lessons,' then I question."

Sierra Vista educators developed their curriculum for fifth- through eighth-graders who took the Stanford English Language Proficiency Test. They were placed in one of three classrooms: nearly proficient, medium proficient or low proficient in English.