Implementing English Immersion in Arizona

Published February 1, 2001

As Arizona school districts begin to develop strategies for complying with the newly passed Proposition 203, which eliminates the state’s K-12 bilingual education programs, one obvious place to seek information on successful strategies would be California, which now has two years’ experience since the 1998 passage of Proposition 227. A much less obvious, but no less valuable, place to turn for advice would be a new choice school in a converted strip mall in Phoenix, Arizona: the Phoenix Advantage Charter School.

Oceanside, California

California’s Oceanside Unified School District has been widely reported as Proposition 227’s biggest success story. Last year, The New York Times reported that English learners in the district 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.

But Arizona school districts seeking to emulate Oceanside’s success must first understand why students in the large, urban school district did so well. Although Oceanside complied thoroughly and rapidly with the new law, district leaders did so within the framework of a larger, thoughtful strategy implemented to ensure that the switch to English immersion would succeed. Key components of their 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 useful model for Arizona policymakers seeking to comply with Proposition 203. But they need not travel to California to find a model where Oceanside-style reforms are working well. A successful model can be found much closer to home, at Phoenix Advantage Charter School.


Phoenix Advantage Charter School

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 schooling, the demographics of Phoenix Advantage’s students are ones that many educators would find challenging:

  • 80 percent receive free or reduced meals, compared to a statewide average of 52 percent;
  • 30 percent are classified as English learners at the time they enroll, compared to a statewide average of 19 percent; and
  • the student body is over 70 percent Hispanic.

Nonetheless, the school achieves remarkable results. On Arizona’s Measure of Academic Progress, nine out of 10 student cohort groups achieved more than a 100 percent gain. The Stanford 9 test scores for first-graders increased from the 24th percentile to the 49th percentile in reading, from the 38th to the 48th percentile in math, and from the 46th to the 22nd percentile in language. School officials announced last year that the percentage of student scores in the top 25 percent nationally had increased from 4 percent to 18 percent in just one 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 1960s and early 1970s by Siegfried Englemann and his colleagues at the University of Oregon.

The reading curriculum used at Phoenix Advantage is phonics-based and employs a step-by-step learning approach. Students begin by learning letters and then words, with a focus on literal comprehension. The math curriculum is based on mastery of basic facts and relationships, beginning with counting and then 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 for Public Policy Research. When the school opened its doors in 1997, the student body numbered 250; today, it totals nearly 1,100 students.

“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.”

As in Oceanside, other reforms at Phoenix Advantage have helped to create a better learning environment for students. Advantage school has a longer school year–200 days–than Arizona’s government schools, and also a longer school day, from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. As they do in Oceanside, Advantage students adhere to a strict behavior code, called their “Code of Civility.” They also are required to “dress appropriately.” And maximizing parental involvement is a schoolwide priority at Phoenix Advantage.

The implementation of Proposition 203 will be a challenge for many Arizona school districts that have relied heavily on bilingual education. However, the examples reported here illustrate the significant rewards that a successful transition can bring to Arizona’s English learners and their families.

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].