The state’s school report card looks something like this: The new, structured English immersion programs are working by reclassifying students faster, we need more money, longer school days, higher standards and better pay for teachers.
At least 15 educators and administrators turned up at Payson’s new district offices in the Julia Randall Elementary rock building Thursday afternoon to hear State Superintendent Tom Horne’s thoughts about the state of education.
Horne said he would answer any questions, and topics ranged from bilingual education to recruiting teachers. Rim Country Middle School teacher Kristi Kisler asked the million dollar question — what about next year’s budget?
Horne said the state survived this year in part because of $1.5 billion in federal stimulus funds, however, “Next year we won’t have that, so unless something happens, next year it will be grim.”
One teacher from the back of the room shouted out, “Can you elaborate on grim?”
Horne said he could not because he did not know what would happen, especially with the budget still sitting in the legislature. However, he did say it would be impossible not to have cuts.
Beyond the monster of the budget, Horne said he has three top priorities for the state.
The first is increasing academic rigor in the classroom. He said the level of what students learn now should be increased so students can compete on an international level with countries with higher standards. He said attracting highly qualified science and math teachers is necessary if they want to compete.
“Right now we have a shortage of qualified teachers,” he said.
Tying into this, Horne’s second priority is increasing teacher salaries. Right now, salaries are too low to attract and keep qualified teachers in the state. Without the right teachers, the state cannot increase test scores or lower dropout rates.
The third priority is reducing class sizes.
One audience member asked why students seem to always be out of school whether it is for half days, breaks or holidays.
Horne said it is because the standards are very lax. Today, schools are only required to teach students four hours a day. While most schools do not teach for only four hours, some do.
“I think it’s scandalous,” he said about the four-hour requirement. “International kids are learning longer and more and we are competing with them.”
“There is a desperate need to have longer school days and school years.”
He admitted this would mean more funding, but is necessary.
Horne sung praises for the new structured English immersion program for non-English speaking students, which went into effect for the 2008-2009 school year.
With the new, four-hour program in place, the reclassification of students to English speakers has increased by 30 percent.
The program stemmed from a September 2006 ruling that created the Arizona English Language Learners (ELL) task force. The task force developed structured English immersion (SEMI) programs. The new program requires a minimum of four hours per day of English language development for student’s first year as an English language learner separate from non-ELL students.
In that four hours at an elementary school level, students work on conversation, grammar, reading, vocabulary and writing.
When Horne came into office in 2003, the majority of school districts were teaching bilingual education. However, the effectiveness of the program was questioned after several studies showed that students immersed in English education did better than students in bilingual education.
“I think we are well on our way to be being the country’s leader in helping kids learn quickly so they can compete with other students. Our main task is to get kids to learn English within a year because we don’t want to separate the kids for more than a year.”