Article Published in The Tribune (Phoenix, AZ)
As Arizona school districts begin to develop strategies for complying with the newly-passed Proposition 203, they would be well served to pay attention to what has worked in California. The new Arizona law was based on California’s Proposition 227, which passed in 1998, effectively eliminating the state’s bilingual education programs.
In California, Oceanside Unified School District has been widely reported as Proposition 227’s biggest success story. The New York Times reported earlier this year that English learners in Oceanside had improved their Stanford 9 test scores by 11 percentile points in reading and 19 percentile points in math since they switched to English immersion.
For Arizona school districts seeking to emulate Oceanside’s success, they must first understand why students in the large, urban school district did so well. Oceanside was widely considered the California district to comply most thoroughly and rapidly with the new law. Led by Superintendent Ken Noonan and several dedicated principals, bilingual education classes were swiftly dismantled and replaced with English immersion programs.
But Oceanside’s leaders point to these changes as critical components of a larger, thoughtful strategy implemented to ensure that the switch to English immersion would succeed. Other changes undertaken as part of this strategy included:
- Redirecting Title I and other funds from personnel expenses to instructional materials for classrooms;
- Adopting a structured English language development program with a strong foundation in phonics;
- Establishing a zero tolerance policy for violence at all grade levels, and
- Protecting instructional time from unrelated matters to the extent that some teachers reported gaining as much as one hour of instructional time per week.
The success of Oceanside’s well-designed transition to English immersion represents a very useful model for Arizona policymakers seeking to comply with Proposition 203. But they need not look all the way to California to find a model where Oceanside-style reforms are working well. One can be found much closer to home, at Phoenix Advantage Charter School.
Charter schools are public schools that have been granted special autonomy, which allows them to avoid bureaucratic rules and contractual agreements in exchange for greater performance-based accountability. Arizona’s charter school law allows for-profit companies to operate charter schools when they form a partnership with an Arizona-based community nonprofit organization, which is how Boston, Massachusetts-based Advantage Schools founded its Phoenix charter.
Phoenix Advantage School opened in September 1997. As one local columnist described it, the school, in “a converted strip mall, on a side street in Central Phoenix, doesn’t look like the jewel that it is.”
In keeping with Advantage Schools’ commitment to urban schools, Phoenix Advantage’s demographics are one many educators would find challenging: 80% receive free or reduced meals (the statewide average is 52%), and 30% are classified as English learners at the time they enroll, 10% higher than the state average. The student population is strongly Hispanic, over 70%.
Nonetheless, some of the results have been remarkable. On Arizona’s Measure of Academic Progress, 9 out of 10 student cohort groups achieved more than a 100% gain. First graders’ Stanford 9 test scores increased from the 24th percentile to the 49th percentile in reading, from the 38th to the 48th percentile in math, and from the 22nd to the 46th percentile in language. Further, last year school officials announced that the percentage of student scores in the top 25% nationally had increased from 4% to 18% in the span of just the previous school year.
The school uses an intensive-English immersion approach for English learners in conjunction with the Direct Instruction curriculum used by all Advantage schools. Direct Instruction was originally developed in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s by Siegfried Englemann and his colleagues at the University of Oregon.
The reading curriculum used at Phoenix Advantage is phonics-based and utilizes a step-by-step learning approach. Students begin by learning letters and then words, with a focus on literal comprehension. A specially designed remedial “corrective reading” program follows a scripted sequence beginning with identifying sounds and blending, and proceeding to more advanced decoding skills such as “word build-ups, vocabulary and story reading with comprehension programs.”
The math curriculum is based on mastery of basic facts and relationships, beginning with counting and moving on to other fundamental procedures. “Students learn in small instructional groups based on academic skill level rather than grade. Assessment and reassessment happens all the time,” says Principal Kate Ford.
The results have not gone unnoticed. The school ranked well on a comparative survey of parental satisfaction by the Goldwater Institute. When it opened its doors in 1997 the student body numbered 250. Today it totals nearly 1,100 students. The school has also expanded from its original grades K-5 and now teaches students through the 8th grade. It plans to expand one grade per year until it serves students through the 12th grade.
“Proponents of school choice often point to Phoenix Advantage as an exemplary school,” remarked Arizona Superintendent for Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan. “The school’s use of Direct Instruction in the core subject areas of reading, language and math provides assistance to those children who need extra help while simultaneously allowing more advanced students to move ahead at an accelerated pace. The curriculum has also helped students with limited English skills achieve academically.”
These remarkable results can be attributed to the school’s energetic leadership and faculty but also to the benefits of its well-developed curriculum and staunch commitment to optimizing the learning environment. The parallel to the reforms in Oceanside is noteworthy. To begin with, the school year is longer, 200 days, than at Arizona’s government schools, as is the school day, 8:30 AM – 3:30 PM. Students adhere to a strict behavior code, called their “Code of Civility,” and are required to “dress appropriately.” Students participate in character education lessons, studying historical figures in terms of basic virtues. And maximizing parental involvement is a schoolwide priority.
Just as leaders in California’s Oceanside have recently found themselves under pressure by some disapproving education bureaucrats, leaders at Phoenix Advantage have had to ward off would-be regulatory troublemakers of their own. Last year, Maricopa County’s Environmental Services Department delivered a “Cease and Desist” order to close the entire school on the premise that an inspector found an inadequate number of sinks in the schools’ food distribution area. The school does not prepare any meals on its premises, other than to heat prepackaged meals in its ovens prior to distribution.
Prior to receiving the “Cease and Desist” order, school officials had been told they had at least a month to remedy the problem. The school’s construction plans and permit applications had, after all, been approved previously. But by acting quickly in the face of this emergency, they were able to obtain a new and different type permit which enabled them to escape being shut down. The new permit allowed the operation of a service kitchen rather than a preparation kitchen. While disaster was averted, the regrettable incident presents a cogent reminder that whatever the benefits for children, the boldest education reformers must still cope on a day-to-day basis with regulatory forces seeking to compromise their success.
In her testimony before the House Education Committee earlier this year, Principal Ford read from a letter she received from a parent:
Though we do not come from families of affluent lifestyles . . . we have many visions and goals for our children. One of our dreams for them was that someday they would have the opportunity to attend a school where they would be in a safe environment and be able to get an excellent education. Raising five children with our financial background, you can see how at one point this would have seemed impossible to a family like ours. With this in mind, you can imagine the excitement that my wife was experiencing the summer of 1998, when she found out about your school. Here was the opportunity that we had been praying for…
Perhaps by following the model set forward by Ms. Ford and her Phoenix Advantage team, other Arizona schools will be able to achieve their valuable successes.
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