October 28, 2016
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Segregation Of Language In AZ Schools

 New America Media, Question & Answer, Vivian Po

PHOENIX - Arizona schools have separated English learners from their English-speaking classmate in four-hour daily stretches since the state legislature mandated this process in 2007.

But although the statute (known as HB 2064) called on students to under go these “language immersion” sessions for one year, a new report reveals that such segregation is often extended beyond one year and frequently causes rifts between students.

Patricia Gandara, coauthor of the report, titled, “A Return to the ‘Mexican Room’: The Segregation of Arizona’s English Learners,” is a professor of education and codirector of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). 

She spoke with New America Media’s Vivian Po on the negative consequences of marginalizing English learners from mainstream classrooms and other options for promoting language fluency.

Po: How are English learners segregated in Arizona’s classrooms?

Gandara: What’s disturbing about this program is that they actually set out to segregate these student for at least four hours of separate instruction in English language acquisition, where children have no contact with actual English speakers. 

It is not right and certainly not consistent with research done in the last couple decades about exposing students to good models of the language you want them to learn, and exposing them to peers, who can interact with them in that language.

While the state of Arizona is convinced that this is only a four-hour block and that the children will mix with other children during lunch or recess, we found evidence that they never mix with others. 

It is hard to reintegrate these children into the classroom after that experience because of the schedule of classes. The children will never return to a mainstream setting where they could make friends with English speakers. 

Plus, you can’t put kids in a classroom for four-hour segregation and expect them to gravitate to children they have never met or have no contact with before on the playground. They are going to the playground with the same children they were segregated with. 

It is a mistake to assume children will form friendships among kids who speak English whom they have never had contact with. 

Po: Kids are supposed to be segregated for one year, but that’s not what you found, right?

Gandara: The law says the program should not last more than one year. Supporters argued that separating the children is really for a one-year intensive that will results in them being reclassified as English-proficient. But in reality the majority is not reclassified in one year. 

In fact, a majority of children have to continue in the program for two years or more. If they are released, they are released without the benefit of being reclassified as an “English speaker.” It is clear that this is an extraordinary measure that is not meeting its own goal of one year.

Po: Is there a disadvantage to this kind of instruction separation for English Learners?

Gandara: Research tells us that some separation of students for an hour or for a maximum of two hours per day can be productive where they receive very specific, targeted intervention around a language. But anything beyond that can be counterproductive, because you cannot drill kids for four hours a day and expect them to be engaged. It is just too much. 

As a result, children are missing out on other things that they desperately need, such as instruction in social studies, math, history and science, and interactions with other children.

One of the reasons why Asian children have done better across the board on all kind of tests is because they tend to be the least segregated as English learners. They tend to go to schools where there are lots of English speakers and they are not left in an isolated community. 

However, for those who are isolated with other low-income children who don’t speak English, they tend to produce not great results, contrary to the great stereotypes.

Po: What are the consequences of the segregation?

There are two great concerns that are not even been addressed in Arizona. One is stigma. There is considerable evidence that when children are kept away from their peers, they become stigmatized. 

They are the “EL-ers.” Other children are not anxious to get to know them. Children who are marginalized in school are at greater risk of dropping out. It is very important to feel welcome and that you belong. Over time, those kids who feel they are not wanted there have a greater tendency to drop out of school.

Second, when these children are segregated in secondary schools, they are not accumulating credits for the courses they need to graduate or go to college. Unless very big changes are made, even after one year in this program, they cannot graduate from high schools. It is putting these kids at risk for life. 

We think the stakes are highest at the secondary-school level, because it really jeopardizes their chances of graduating. At the lower grades, the stigmatization seems to be the bigger issue for children, because there are fewer opportunities for them to mix with other kids, unlike at the secondary level, where after the four-hour block, they are then released and allowed to move into other classes. 

Elementary school kids are going to see the same group of children all day, and all day, they are viewed as a kid who is at the back of the classroom.

Po: Why has Arizona refused to adopt other language programs, such as bilingual or immersion programs, which have proven to be effective in other states?

Gandara: They argue that those programs have not been effective, which I think is a poor reading of the research. I think there are lots of ideologies going on in Arizona. 

We are seeing this in a number of fronts, such as their advocating for legislation against ethnic studies classes, fighting battles at the borders and criminalizing undocumented workers. 

I think this is part of the same kind of ideology that prevails in Arizona right now -- that they really don’t want these people here and aren’t going to invest in them. This four-hour program was the result of a lawsuit in 1992, for failing to invest in the education of English learners. And Arizona has been fighting for 20 years now in the courts to not provide any more funding or services for English learners.

Po: What do you think of the ethnic studies legislation in Arizona?

Gandara: It sounds to me like a paranoid attack on schools that have been providing instruction in Mexican American history, which is culture and art. Those are very legitimate things for children to study. 

There is reasonable evidence that studying these things is good for students, who come from this background. This is the same reason why we instituted black history. We have courses that point to the contributions of other major minority groups in this country because it is easy to overlook those contributions and the values of these individuals in our society.

Po: What kind of recommendations would you give to Arizona about educating English learners?

Gandara: We believe the real mistake in Arizona is to require all English-learning children to either be placed into such a program or go without any instruction. Those are currently their options, but there is lots of literature and research that suggest many other options, which would be preferable and beneficial to children in those classrooms. 

Arizona should stop restricting children to these programs. We believe children who come with another language have a huge asset. It makes sense for Arizona and these children to build on those assets and allow them to become confident in dual languages. That will serve Arizona and the nation--and certainly serve the interests of those kids.

Po: Are we doing a better job with English learners in California?

Gandara: No. We also have a lot of weak programming and restrictions against the use of primary languages, although those begin to break down in many places because people realized that an English-only regime is not working. 

The only thing I can say for California over Arizona is: At least they have not forced children to be segregated for four hours per day. Also, we have an increasing number of dual-immersion programs all round the state because people want those options for their kids.

Po: Are we seeing any innovative English learning programs or models emerging?

Gandara: We have been in a period of drought—and, in very large part, by the politics around language. 

Whenever immigration is a big issue, when employment is a problem and the economy is weak, we have historically turned to immigrants as scapegoats. It is very hard for people to put forward good innovation in this environment. 

However, the working group on English learners has been meeting regularly in person and by conference calls that go on virtually nonstop over the last year in trying to rethink and reshape--and help Congress to rewrite--the policy for English learners in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is overdue to be reauthorized.

Po: Why is it important to invest in English learners?

Gandara: Historically, various groups have not only joined the U.S., but changed it. I believe the diversity of this nation is what makes it unique and exceptional, but when there is this kind of negative treatment of individuals from specific groups, whether they are English learners or people based on their ethnicity, it tears apart the fabric of our society, which is the best of what we have.

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