Diving Arizona: Critics Say Recent State Immigration Policies Are Segregating Schools

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AMID ALL THE NATIONAL ATTENTION ON ARIZONA these past few months, largely due to Senate Bill 1070 empowering police to take "reasonable" steps to verify the immigration status of criminal suspects, the state's K12 district administrators have been wrestling with a unique segregation issue, as well. Over the past two years, all districts have implemented a state-mandated curriculum for English-language learners centered on a four-hour block of time in which ELLs have been separated from other students for focused instruction.

In addition, administrators in at least one district face state sanctions over ethnic-studies classes, which will be banned next Jan. 1 if they cater to a specific ethnic group, or advocate ethnic separatism or a desire to overthrow the U.S. government.

Opponents of S.B. 1070 and these other state policies regarding ELLs and ethnic-studies classes say those measures are all connected--and divisive in that they target those who are new to the United States.

"We no longer can separate these issues," says Manuel Isquierdo, superintendent of the Sunnyside Unified School District. "That's why we re so aggressively concerned about S.B. 1070. Along with everything else in this state, it's anti-immigration, and to some degree anti-Hispanic--and anti-education.... It's creating a climate of fear and mistrust among many Latino families."

However, the state's deputy superintendent of education, Margaret Dugan, says it's unfortunate that S.B. 1070 and the ethnic-studies legislation passed so close in time, but she doesn't see those issues, along with the four-hour segregation of ELL students, as part of any coordinated campaign. "I don't see it as connected at all," she says. "People might connect the dots differently."

Separation of ELLs

Under House Bill 2064, first implemented in 2008, ELL students are tested each spring and labeled as basic, pre-emergent, emergent or intermediate. Those in the first three categories are pulled out of class for four hours daily, while those labeled intermediate are mainstreamed but given extra support.

Some see the pullout strategy as sound pedagogy; others say it's driven by a political imperative for state leaders to show they're pushing new residents to the state to assimilate, using methods not in line with educational best practices.

Several school superintendents have expressed a variety of concerns about this measure. Carlos Garcia, president of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, could see pulling out students for an hour or two to learn specific skills, but he also sees the value in ELLs spending more time with English-speaking students who speak the language more skillfully. "The four-hour thing--I think that's ridiculous," says Garcia, who is also the superintendent of San Francisco (Calif.) Unified School District. "Segregating kids is never a good thing."

Another concern superintendents have expressed is over how the four-hour requirement crowds out the rest of the day. "With four hours of ELL [instruction], how many minutes does that leave you for the rest--math, science, PE, music? Time is always something educators struggle with," says Myriam Roa, superintendent of Phoenix Elementary School District.

Students in the Phoenix Union High School District are beginning to find it difficult to take all the other classes they need to graduate, says Superintendent Kent Scribner. "Many are forced to miss elective class opportunities or are required to take summer school," he says.

Dugan, who's running for state superintendent of schools this year, notes that districts can integrate English language instruction with other subjects like social studies or science. She adds, "If they don't have a good command of the English language, they're not going to be able to pick up social studies or science, or any of these other disciplines. …