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Unanimous vote moves ELL opt-out bill through committee

A House committee has given its approval to a bill that would allow some schools to opt out of the state’s structured program for teaching students English, which was instituted in order to comply with a federal lawsuit.

In 2007, lawmakers created the English Language Learners Task Force, which was tasked with developing and adopting models for structured English immersion classes that all schools would implement. The model they agreed to requires all ELL students spend four hours a day in such a class.

But that presents a problem for some school districts that have had better success using programs they developed. One such district is Santa Cruz Unified School District, said Rep. David Gowan, a Sierra Vista Republican.

“One size of shoe doesn’t fit all,” he said.

Gowan is sponsoring H2537, which would allow individual schools to be exempted from the Task Force’s model if the school meets federal No Child Left Behind standards for ELL progress and the school is classified as at least “performing” by the Arizona Department of Education.
Dan Fontes, superintendent of the Santa Cruz district, told the House Education Committee that, while the four-hour model may work in other schools and districts, it has actually harmed ELL progression in his district.

“It works almost in reverse (for us),” he told the panel Feb. 1. “It’s creating a big disparity in our elementary classrooms.

Since 2005, the district’s homegrown ELL instruction program has cut the number of students who couldn’t speak or read English from more than 1,800 to about 800. Rep. Rich Crandall, a Mesa Republican who chairs the committee, said those kind of results warrant some wiggle room in the law.

“Those who are achieving at a high rate deserve to have some flexibility,” he said.

But there are some concerns with how the bill is structured. John Stoller, who works in the Department of Education’s Accountability Division, said there need to be stricter standards for determining which schools can be exempted. Nearly 60 percent of schools meet the NCLB standards for ELL students, while 97 percent of schools are rated at least performing.
“I think there’s a better way,” he said.

Despite the concerns, he said the department is committed to working with Gowan and school districts like Santa Cruz to find a way to provide the flexibility they are seeking.

The committee approved the bill 9-0.

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