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Earth Notes

ELL Challenges Unique to Northern Arizona

By Laurel Morales

Flagstaff, AZ – AMBY: Changing classes, lockers, chatter, laughter

It's just before lunchtime at Coconino High School. Students walk in packs gabbing all the way. If you listen closely, you'll hear a few different languages spoken - English, Spanish, Navajo and Hopi.

About half the students here are considered language minority students. For them a language other than English is spoken at home. There are 5-thousand language minority students in the entire Flagstaff school district.

(Fade down amby)

Stacie Zanzucchi is an English Language Learning specialist at Coconino.

ZANZUCCHI: Fifty percent of our ELL not only at Coconino but district wide are Native American students so they are for the most part Navajo and Hopi. However, most of those students do not speak their indigenous language but they're exposed to the language at home from either their parents or grandparents. So their academic English is lacking because of their exposure to the indigenous language as opposed to English at home.

Sophomore Demetrius Zee is one of those students. Upon first meeting him I wonder why he's considered a language minority student. Conversationally he sounds like a typical shy teenager. But it's his reading and writing skills that have needed work.

ZEE: Like writing essays and stuff like that. Sentences make more sense. I can read little bit faster I guess.

Zanzucchi says he's made great progress in the last two years. Zee tells me he speaks mostly English with his mom at home and speaks Navajo when he visits his grandparents on the reservation.

Zee's required to take an English assessment exam each year until he's considered fluent in conversation, reading and writing. The same goes for all language minority students.

State law also requires all English Language Learners to be in self-contained classrooms with other ELL students for at least a year. Zanzucchi says that method isn't appropriate for everyone.

ZANZUCCHI: The cookie cutter mold doesn't really work because students come not only at various levels in their English ability but many of the students that are coming from other countries have a wide range of literacy abilities in their native languages. It is a case by case analysis when students come in and we move them according to their ability and achievement levels.

Michael Fillerup agrees with Zanzucchi. He's the bilingual ELL director for the Flagstaff Unified School District.

FILLERUP: If you imagine taking a Navajo child who speaks English and put them in a classroom with non English speakers that's probably the worst thing you can do for someone for language development. The law at the state level was crafted with southern Arizona in mind.

The state currently provides an extra 365 dollars a year for each English Language Learner. Most educators say that's not enough. Federal law requires that the states fund programs to help make students proficient in English. House Majority Leader Tom Boone says several legislators believe that money should come from the federal level.

Flagstaff has actually come up with a solution that doesn't cost the state any extra money.

A decade ago the Office for Civil Rights took a look at the Flagstaff district and found it needed to do a better job at teaching language minority students. So FUSD was given federal dollars, in addition to state funding, to help pay for its ELL instruction. It comes out to about 17-hundred dollars per ELL student.

With that money they're adopting a new method of teaching English.

FILLERUP: We're looking at a common approach used in every classroom by every teacher at every school If you're doing a lesson on predictions for example what verb do we use? We use the future tense will this is a great opportunity to reinforce that. Or if you're teaching a history lesson you're teaching past tense verbs.

Fillerup is confident that the new method will be successful.

FILLERUP: Our language minority students will be able to say we do not need anybody else to speak for us because we can speak for ourselves. We do not need someone else to read for us because we can read for ourselves. We do not need someone else to write for us because we can write for ourselves. Our students will be able to say we broke what many people said was an unbreakable cycle.

Right now F-U-S-D is still in the process of implementing this method of teaching English. The hope is that a new cycle of English language students succeeding will begin soon.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.