As Politicians Fight, Students Just Want To Learn

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Attend school full time and earn decent grades. Hold down a part-time job to help support your family. Pass the high stakes Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) test. And yes, do all that while learning a new language.

Those are the challenges facing teenage students labeled English-language learners (ELL) in the Payson Unified School District.

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Payson High School English Language Learner teacher Jerry Rhoades helps Luis Chavez, left, and Cesar Avalos with their lessons. The two students are among the six Rhoades has enrolled in his morning ELL class. Rhoades and other teachers contend the ELL students face daunting tasks in learning a new language while keeping up academically with their fellow English-speaking students.

Cesar Avalos, a 16-year-old Mexican student in Jerry Rhoades' Payson High School ELL class, knows the obstacles all too well.

He enrolled in PUSD as an eighth-grader, unable to speak any English.

"I didn't know anything," he said. "I couldn't understand."

Three years after enrolling in the school district, Avalos has a moderate understanding of the English language but the road to his new-found speaking and listening skills was a rocky one.

In the traditional classroom, help was not readily available for Avalos and his fellow students with limited English proficiency.

Teachers, frustrated by their lack of training, dealt with the students -- most of whom spoke Spanish -- by pairing them with a bilingual peer who could translate directions and lessons.

But as proficient as the bilingual students were, even they struggled to translate the meanings of skills and commands that would be needed to pass the state-mandated AIMS test. Even for the most fluent bilingual student, translating quadratic formula or Pythagorean theorem during math class is difficult.

Thankfully, ELL classes -- usually one or two hours a day -- were available to Avalos and other students struggling to master a new vocabulary.

"I had Mrs. (Blanche) Oakland in middle school and now I have Mr. Rhoades," Avalos said. "They help me a lot."

Avalos is one of six students in Rhoades' morning ELL class. Each student has varying levels of English proficiency.

Luis Chavez, a sophomore, arrived in Payson in 2003 but still struggles with the English language.

Yelithza Hernandez and Diana Flores have been in this country only six months and speak very limited English.

Diana Morales, in Payson for about a year, understands the new language a bit better and spends some of her ELL class time translating English to Spanish for her two friends.

Rhoades admits his frustration, saying the ELL students face what seem to be insurmountable challenges with only limited resources to help them.

"You want to see and help them succeed," he said. "But often they do not because they have to learn a new language while learning the same subject (matter) as their fellow (English speaking) students."

As daunting as the challenges are for ELL students, Avalos is not ready to back down.

"I want to learn, I want to do good," he said. "That is why I am here."

For Rhoades, the solutions to helping the students succeed involved a myriad of teaching strategies. They include one-on-one tutoring, after school and intersession classes, more computer software, better access to dual language programs and the funding for real life experiences like field trips.

Learning a new language

In November 2000, Arizona voters passed Proposition 203 which banned teaching any language but English.

Public schools were required to do away with the English as a Second Language (ESL), bilingual education and dual language programs that had been in place for decades.

The thinking behind the proposition was that students could master English in one year if they were taught only in structured immersion classes.

"It's hard to learn (English) in just one year," Avalos said.

In 2003, researchers at Arizona State University studied thousands of public school students who were not proficient in English. Their task was to find out if the students could, indeed, learn a new language in a year.

The research showed that only 11 percent of the students tested proficient on the Stanford English Language Proficiency test (SELP).

While the about 120 ELL students in the Payson Unified School District struggle to learn a new language, legislators play politics with the tools that could help them.

Lawmakers and Governor Janet Napolitano have yet to agree on measures that would allocate funds to improve instruction for Arizona's about 155,000 students classified as English language-learners.

On Feb. 24, daily fines against the state hit $1 million for Arizona's failure to improve ELL education as mandated by a 2000 court order on funding. By the end of March, the fine will grow to $1.5 million per day.

If lawmakers adjourn the 2006 legislative session without agreeing on a plan, the fine rises to $2 million.

While politicians continue to wage war on a solution to the problems, students in Rhoades' class continue to struggle with the challenges of mastering a new language.

"I've heard what is going on (in the Legislature) but I don't understand," Avalos said. "I just want to learn."

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