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Immigration crackdown adds challenge for Phoenix schools

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Immigration crackdown adds challenge for Phoenix schools

  • Leslie Barnhizer teaches an exercise about numbers to her kindergarten class at Balsz Elementary School in Phoenix. She teaches the only kindergarten class for English-speaking students at her school.
    Nick Kosmider/Cronkite News ServiceLeslie Barnhizer teaches an exercise about numbers to her kindergarten class at Balsz Elementary School in Phoenix. She teaches the only kindergarten class for English-speaking students at her school.
  • Dezi Meadows, left, and Christina Wright work with building blocks in Barnhizer’s kindergarten class. Barnhizer began the year with more than 30 students in her classroom.
    Nick Kosmider/Cronkite News ServiceDezi Meadows, left, and Christina Wright work with building blocks in Barnhizer’s kindergarten class. Barnhizer began the year with more than 30 students in her classroom.

Leslie Barnhizer teaches the only kindergarten class for English-speaking students at Balsz Elementary School in southeast Phoenix; the other three are English Language Learning classes.

With enrollment – and consequently, state and federal funding – dropping annually, the district was unable to hire another kindergarten teacher for native English speakers in 2010. So every English-speaking student who moved into the district was added to Barnhizer's already long roster.

It is not a unique story.

School enrollment numbers have been dropping consistently since 2007 in many Phoenix districts with large Hispanic populations. Superintendents partially blame the economy for this decrease, but they say Arizona's employer sanctions law in 2007 and SB 1070 in 2010 cracking down on illegal immigrants are also key factors.

But an unintended consequence of the crackdown is that in some school districts, there has been a noticeable impact on the education of children who are native born, English-speaking, U.S. citizens.

"One of the reasons why this class is so big is that the kids have to be separated by language ability, and since we have such a high population of kids learning English, the other three [kindergarten] classes are all ELL" Barnhizer, 25, said. "My class is for the kids who already speak English, so any new kid that speaks English has to go in my room."

In 2009, there were two kindergarten classes at Balsz for native English speakers that had 16 and 17 students on the 100th day of school, according to district documents. At the beginning of the 2010 school year, Barnhizer had 35 kids in her class.

"There wasn't even enough room on the carpet for all of them, and it was just so many kids; it's hard to get anything done," the fourth-year teacher said. "Last year, when we started the year, there were a lot of kids again similar to this year, and they were able to hire a new teacher to take some of those overflow kids to keep the numbers low, and this year that just wasn't an option."

Alhambra, Balsz and Cartwright elementary districts all have Hispanic enrollments of more than 70 percent, according to data provided by the Arizona Department of Education. On average, these districts have lost more than 13 percent of their students in the last four years.

Alhambra Superintendent Karen Williams said her district's numbers were not declining until the employer sanctions law passed in July 2007. The Arizona law prohibits employers from knowingly hiring illegal immigrants and offers E-Verify, a federal online system, to help employers determine employee eligibility.

"At the onset of E-Verify, we began to see a decrease in our population," Williams said. "Now we have new information in terms of citizenship and those questions, and we believe that has kept that decline steady."

Superintendents Michael Martinez and Jeffrey Smith of the Cartwright and Balsz districts agreed that the immigration laws have affected enrollment. After the 2007 law, parents told Balsz employees they were leaving Arizona because they couldn't find a job, Smith said. However, Martinez and Smith also believe the economy was a major contributor to their losses.

The decline in the construction industry hurt enrollment because much of the districts' populations worked in the field and had to leave the area when employment options dropped significantly, Martinez said. Tourism also played a part in the Balsz district, Smith said, since the area's economy is largely based on it.

The effects of SB 1070, however, can't be refuted, even though the main provisions of the law have been stayed. At the end of the school year in May, Barnhizer and all three superintendents said parents and students often told school employees they were leaving the state because of the new law.

"Strangely enough, not all of them are undocumented," Martinez said. "Some of them are just saying, 'I'm not from Arizona, I'm Hispanic, and I just don't feel like it's a friendly state anymore.'"

A recent study by BBVA Bancomer Research estimated that there were 100,000 fewer Hispanics in Arizona in November than at the beginning of the year. While the study could not yet specifically determine where Hispanics were moving, it said that some have moved to other U.S. states while others, perhaps a minority, have moved back to their countries of origin, mostly Mexico.

Unintended consequences

Though the backers of these laws have said they were intended to force undocumented immigrants out of the state, drops in student enrollment impact all Arizona school districts. With fewer students enrolled at the schools, districts receive less funding from the state and federal government each year.

State funding is based on average daily membership, ADM, according to Yousef Awwad, director of school finance at the Arizona Department of Education. The state calculates how much funding each district should get for one school year based on its enrollment numbers during the first 100 days of the previous year, he said.

Since 2007, Cartwright, the second largest elementary district in the state with close to 18,000 students, has lost more than 2,000 kids, resulting in a funding cut between $11 million and $13 million and the loss of 300 teachers and a school, Martinez said.

Smith said Balsz, which is a much smaller district with fewer than 3,000 students, is down 147 kids this year and is losing $18,000 a day.

Alhambra's enrollment has dropped 500 students this year, and Williams expects it to cost the district about $2.5 million next year.

With more cuts, fewer teachers are hired and class sizes grow. Martinez said that not every class is able to stay at the 25-student standard. For instance, at Balsz Elementary School in the 2009 school year, the average class size for all types of classes exceeded 25 students in two grade levels, third and fourth grades. In 2010, however, all grades but second and third had more than 25 kids in a classroom, according to district documents.

While larger class sizes are impact both English-proficient and English Language Learner, local school district have more leeway to allow larger classroom size for English-proficient students. State regulations keep ELL class sizes smaller.

According to the Arizona English Language Learners Task Force, ELL classes can't exceed 23 or 28 students per teacher, depending on their level of proficiency. Standard class sizes, however, are determined by each district, said Amy Rezzonico, spokesperson for the Department of Education. So when schools have no choice but to expand class sizes because hiring more teachers isn't an option, the English-speaking students are hit harder.

Barnhizer said these problems regrettably affect the students, because larger class sizes mean less individual attention for kids.

"In the lower grades especially, we teach a lot in small groups," she said. "With more kids, I have to have more groups, which means I meet with each group less time, so that impacts the kids."

Students are affected in other ways as well that don't involve class sizes. Martinez said the short-term effect of budget cuts have been devastating.

"We've had to trim around the edges with a lot of our special programming: less P.E., less music, less art in an effort to keep our core curriculum intact," he said. "I wouldn't say their educational experience is worse, but it certainly isn't as diverse and it's not as well-rounded as some of us think it should be. There's more to life than reading, writing and math."

Smith said Balsz's elementary schools also had to cut music and art before the fall semester of 2008, but the district was able to get the programs back after voters passed a tax override in the 2008 general election, providing funding for the district to rehire art and music teachers for the schools.

Barnhizer said many teachers are trying to minimize the impact on students by staying after school for tutoring, to run after-school clubs or coming in on Saturdays to catch up on lesson plans, she said. All of it takes a toll.

"It can be very frustrating to sit in a classroom with 35 kids because of whatever legislation, whatever decisions have been made by people who aren't teachers, but then we're the ones dealing with the fall back," she said. "Dealing with having a budget cut, unable to hire more teachers – that gets very frustrating and you don't want to go through your kindergarten day like that. You want to be happy, not focused on the negatives."

Staying positive is crucial in Barnhizer's work. In her workday, she walks around her classroom as students – dressed in school uniforms – work in groups of four or five, learning to write numerals or creating patterns out of blocks. As can be expected, many of the kindergartners lose interest in the current lessen quickly, keeping Barnhizer on her toes at all times with her eyes in 29 different places at once.

"Management is difficult," she said. "Yeah, I can get 20 kids to be ready, but there's just more kids who have a harder time focusing and they've never been to preschool, so they are just a little wilder."

Most days, Barnhizer lives with the chaos, taking one thing at a time. With more and more kids, however, she said it can get hard to focus on why she became a teacher: to help people.

The uncertainty and tension surrounding any new immigration-related law seems to trickle to the classroom. Martinez said the "1070 hoopla" is certainly on the minds of the people and students in his district located in the Maryvale area, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in northwest Phoenix.

Martinez said its residents, however, are not all people who recently emigrated from Mexico. A lot of the families lived in the area before it was a part of the United States.

Because of the blend of recent immigrants and long-time residents, he said, there can be some friction.

"When you're trying to teach children, and that's the talk of their neighborhood, any type of raid, any type of home invasion, any type of negative publicity…it's reflected in the students' journals," Martinez said. "It's kind of interesting and sometimes heartbreaking to read stories written by kids who have been affected by this."

Exodus from Arizona

Barnhizer said the kids, even in kindergarten and first grade, still understand the threat the new laws bring to them.

"When 1070 first passed, and I was still teaching first grade, there were a lot of kids saying things like, 'Oh, we're going back to Mexico because of the sheriff,'" she said. "They do understand, in their own way, the little ones."

Alhambra Superintendent Williams said principals in her district in central Phoenix often recalled students telling them they were going to be leaving at the end of the last school year because of the "unfair law."

With families moving out of the state, school employees worry about the children who are forced to leave behind their homes, their schools and their lives.

"I think it really impacts the kids when they're moved around so often," Barnhizer said. "When you're yanked from a class after being in it for several months, it's just traumatic."

Williams also said her heart goes out to the kids who have to relocate.

"My family moved one time when I was a kid, and I found it devastating," she said, adding that she felt as if the world had ended. "So when families become mobile and they're moving from one state to another trying to find stability, the kids are negatively impacted."

Though official reports say it is too soon to tell where families are going when they leave Arizona, the superintendents had some idea based on what the students and parents told them.

"I do not believe our families relocated to another country, but maybe to other states that had less lenient laws impacting them in terms of their citizenship and their ability to gain employment," Williams said.

Many families mentioned moving to states like Illinois, since the railroad there offers potential work, and the east coast, Williams said. The superintendents heard that neighboring states like New Mexico, Utah and California were popular choices as well.

Enrollment at Albuquerque Public Schools, the largest school district in New Mexico with more than 90,000 students, has increased by about one percent over the last few years, said communications specialist John Miller.

Schools with a majority of Hispanic students in the district have seen an increase in the number of students whose last school was in Arizona.

At the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year, Hayes Middle School, which has around 450 students and is more than 70 percent Hispanic, had 25 to 30 students who had moved from Arizona over the summer, said Principal Tracy Straub. That number is usually no more than five, she said.

Straub said that she sometimes hears the new students mention the Arizona law or fear of their parents' deportation as reasons for coming to New Mexico, though "most of them are very quiet."

Principal Blanca Lopez of Washington Middle School, whose school of approximately 500 students is 98 percent Hispanic, said that children of 15 to 20 families from Arizona enrolled at the beginning of the semester.

"It's not something we usually get," she said. "It used to be that a lot of our families would go to Arizona because there was a lot of work there, but now that has reversed."

Though New Mexico schools now have to accommodate more students, the principals do not think of it as a bad thing. Straub said that Hayes' enrollment still dropped from last year, and that without the Arizona students, the school would have lost a teacher.

At Washington, there is already a large dual-language program, so the new students don't affect the school much except that teachers need to be more flexible since the students come from a different educational system, Lopez said.

Long, uncertain recovery

Arizona schools, however, are struggling and superintendents aren't hopeful for an uptick in enrollment and funding in the near future. Though the economy appears to be creeping back up, schools don't expect to have an increase in enrollment for at least a few years.

"The projections that I've heard show 2014 or something as the first good year in the next few years," Smith said. "So that means we'll have to hang in there for another three or four years."

Martinez said he expects Cartwright's enrollment to go back up, but that the process could be five years in the making.

With Arizona legislators already announcing that they intend to push new bills to ban birthright citizenship and count the number of students who are undocumented, school officials wonder if there will be another exodus. Schools in Arizona and other states are currently not allowed to ask students about their citizenship status.

"The next step, if it comes along, is what [lawmakers] are talking about now, where they are going to go with the birth certificate," Smith said. "They're talking about doing things where we would have to count the kids and identify the ones that aren't citizens."

Williams believes the situation may change if other states begin to implement laws similar to the ones in Arizona or Congress passes a comprehensive immigration law.

"It depends on what happens going forward with perhaps those states implementing similar processes, or whether or not something is done in immigration that creates a path to citizenship, so that people may return," she said.

In the meantime, Phoenix schools are working to provide the best educational environment for their students with what they have.

"We're going to have to keep trimming and cutting," Smith said. "It's just going to be more and more difficult over the next few years until we start to grow again."

In some ways, dealing with the chaos has become a part of working at the Phoenix schools. Barnhizer said it's hard to predict how any given year is going to be.

"It feels like every year, we just have no idea what it's going to be like. Laws change, the state budget changes, and we just have to roll with it," she said. "I wasn't expecting to have such a big class this year, but here I am."

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