Creeping up their little hands, first-graders in Tracey Valenzuela’s class at Thew Elementary School illustrate the word “sneak.”
“Shhh,” Valenzuela says, putting a finger to her mouth.
The children mimic her.
Acting out the words proves helpful when Valenzuela teaches her students vocabulary. Of her 23 students at the Tempe school, 13 are considered English learners. In the Tempe Elementary School District about 39 percent of students are English learners.
While Republican leaders in the Legislature and Gov. Janet Napolitano battle to find a compromise that will adequately fund English learner education, teachers and administrators in East Valley districts say frustrations are growing when it comes to teacher training and assistance in the classroom.
There are too many kids with the same challenge — learning a language while soaking up new concepts — and not enough teachers to go around. Budgets are tight, but state standards keep coming. And so do the kids.
Sylvia Gonzales, district director of English language learning, says she currently receives about $300 of additional state funding for each English learner. She estimates the actual per-student cost to educate children learning English is more than $2,000.
“We’re lagging sorely behind in terms of providing our (English learner) students with what they need,” Gonzales said. “This population continues to grow and the more numbers we have, the more behind we get. We need to hurry up.”
Napolitano, a Democrat, wants to raise funding for English learners on a per-student basis by $1,289 over the next three years. To do this, she wants to appropriate $45 million for the coming fiscal year to create the English Language Acquisition Fund. The money would pay for a first-year increase of $667 per student as well as fund a special cost study to determine the effectiveness of schools.
Republican legislative leaders, however, have opted to scrap per-student funding in favor of a new system in which school districts would select a state-approved instruction model. Districts would then get state money based on the model selected as well from other sources, such as federal grants.
Sen. John Huppenthal, RChandler, says handing over a fixed amount of money per student to systems already failing is irresponsible.
“If you take a system and you reward it for failure, you’ll get lots of failure,” Huppenthal said.
The senator added that he would support granting English learner programs more funding “if it’s structured in a way that we can provide better outcomes for the students.” Huppenthal says research suggests that best practices and more choices for parents ultimately lead to student success.
In the Mesa Unified School District, large class sizes make teaching English learners difficult because individualized attention is often necessary.
“We have teachers sitting there with 35 students,” said Irene Frklich, English language acquisition director for the district.
Frklich says she would hire more language assistants if she had the money.
At Thew Elementary, principal Cindy Denton says the few assistants at the school have made a “tremendous” difference in student learning. Assistants take small groups of students aside — English learners or not — and go over challenging areas such as vocabulary and math.
“We’re stretched thin in being able to provide that support,” Denton said.
Valenzuela says the additional help is greatly appreciated and needed.
“These kids are so deficit in their education and on top of that, having to learn English. It’s a huge huge issue; we simply need more people in the classroom,” Valenzuela said.
In the Scottsdale Unified School District, additional materials such as computers and dictionaries represent one of the biggest needs.
“If you’re a child who speaks Korean and you’re handed a textbook, you may not be able to understand it except the pictures,” said Cathy Rivera, Scottsdale’s executive director of elementary schools and excelling teaching and learning.
Specialized language software and computers would help those students as would materials to assess where each child is in his or her education level, Rivera said.
The other challenge Scottsdale schools face is a wide range of foreign languages spoken by students, including many African tongues only spoken among small tribes.
While only 10 percent of the district is composed of English learners, Rivera says the need to have teachers properly trained to instruct English learners is great.
“One of our biggest challenges is geography because our district is so large,” she said.
Having one school specializing in a language is not an option, she said.
Among the things Gonzales would like to do with additional funds is provide training so teachers can understand how a child learns a language. Training programs frequently instruct teachers on how they can use techniques such as action, pictures and repetition in their lessons to help new concepts stick.
“The achievement gap between (English learners) and their white peers is quite large,” Gonzales said.
“So what’s happening is they’re falling behind compared to the rest of our students, (and) that’s a major challenge.”