Reality Check for English Language Learners


Snippets of surreptitious conversational Spanish dart around the classroom amid scattered outbursts of giggles. I review the color-coded highlighting of sentence parts in our newest sentence formula involving superlative adjectives, pointing to the laminated neon cards magneted to the board. A final few students finish highlighting their notes and we move into examples, but between my sentences I am waiting much too long for their attention. It is one of those days in 6th period ELD Grammar when ten minutes of notes is about to become 20…or 25. I decide an intervention is in order and hold up my hand to ask for silent attention. While I am waiting, I decide what to say next.

I tell my junior high students that, looking around the room, I am worried about their futures. (The class quiets, mostly.) That the eighth graders only have two months until they take AZELLA, the test that will determine how many hours of English classes they will have in high school. That if they are taking two or four hours of English per day, as required by law until they pass AZELLA, it will limit their ability to take the classes they might choose, like music, auto shop or photography. That their hours in English Language Development classes could even limit their ability to take required classes. That if they can’t write a sentence that compares things, they will have a very hard time in many of their courses, including science, social studies and others. That grades count in high school, and if you fail a class, you have to take it again. I ask them if they realize how low the graduation rate is for Arizona ELL’s. I ask them to guess. 70%? 50%? I realize I don’t know the exact number, so we Google it.

According to EdWeek, in 2014 only 18% of Arizona’s English Language Learners graduated high school in four years. I doubt the number has increased much since then.

I do the math quickly on the board. If we follow the stats, only 3.34 students in this class are bound to graduate high school on time. They look around at each other, wondering who it will be. One bright young newcomer says, “It will be me!” At this point I am seriously doubting whether this conversation was a good idea. The outlook is profoundly frightening.*

Scrambling for hope, I dig a little deeper into that number, 3.34 students, saying that there is a good chance that more than three people in class will graduate, because so many of them are still in 7th grade, and they are already learning, and have four or five more years to pull it off, this barely-conceivable heist of learning English quickly and well enough to learn everything else. They have the opportunity to focus on the English language starting now, and get all they can. I ask them to think about the students who move here at 16 or 17 years old. I ask my class to think about whether, if they work hard this year, they might pass AZELLA, or move up a level, and be able to take some fun electives in high school, and graduate on time, or maintain eligibility and play high school sports. There is a lot of talking, and still some laughter, but they are thinking about it.  

I tell them they can do it, but that they have to do the work it will take.

Up goes a hand. “Miss, will I graduate from high school?” Slight squeeze of my heart.

“How do I know?” I answer, and laugh. I ask the class, “Who decides if you graduate from high school? Who decides?”

The smart-aleck stage left blurts, “Jesus!” and the class dissolves into laughter. But maybe, with those numbers, a little prayer wouldn’t hurt.

Many, many factors affect whether I can teach my students what they will need to know to graduate on time. Looking back at my lecture and the faces before me in that class, I can’t help but wonder. Who or what does decide the fate of these students? Many of the decisions are in their hands alone; many are in mine; their parents bear great responsibility. Still, how will the decisions that are made outside the doors of this classroom, and outside of their homes, shape my students’ ability to move forward?  

To be continued…


*All of this is happening with intermittent pauses so that I, our classroom tech, or another student can translate key items into Spanish now and then for the beginners.  This class includes 24 students from pre-emergent through high intermediate levels of English proficiency.


Amethyst Hinton Sainz

I currently teach English Language Development at Rhodes Junior High in Mesa Public Schools. I love seeing the incredible growth in my students and being an advocate for them. I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Adolescent and Young Adult English Language Arts. Before this position I taught high school English in Arizona for 20 years.

My alma maters are Blue Ridge High School and the University of Arizona. My bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and Philosophy led me toward the College of Education, and I soon realized that the creative challenges of teaching would fuel me throughout my career. My love of language, literature and culture led me to the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College for my masters in English Literature. I am a fellow with the Southern Arizona Writing Project, and that professional development along with, later, the National Board process, has been the most influential and transformative learning for me. I enjoy teaching students across the spectrum of academic ability, and keeping up with new possibilities for technology in education, as well as exploring more topics in STEM.

In recent years, much of my professional development has focused on teacher leadership, but I feel like I am still searching for exactly what that means for me.

I live in Mesa, Arizona with my family. I enjoy them, as well as my vegetable garden, our backyard chickens, our dachshund Roxy, reading, writing, cooking (but not doing dishes), hiking and camping, and travel, among other things.

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