A fourth-grade girl stands before her class of about 18 students, reading an essay she wrote, completely in Navajo.

The student, who is enrolled in a Navajo immersion class at Puente de Hozho Elementary School, has spent the last few years studying the language at the trilingual magnet school, which is a beneficiary of a portion of the $2.2 million the district collects in a tax levy for desegregation funding.

The Flagstaff Unified School district is one of 18 districts to use the tax levy, which does not require voter approval. However, a bill in the Arizona Senate would change that if passed.

SB 1174, sponsored by Sen. Debbie Lesko R-Peoria, would require district governing boards to authorize an election to allow voters to decide whether to approve the desegregation tax, beginning in fiscal year 2019-2020. Unsuccessful bills in past legislative sessions would have required an incremental phase-out of the money collected through the tax.

52 STAFF POSITIONS

In FUSD, the special tax pays for 52 staff positions, including 49 teachers and bilingual aides, most of whom teach at Puente de Hozho or Leupp Public School, the district’s school on the Navajo Reservation, said Kerry Kelley, the district’s English Language Learning and Bilingual director. The money is also used for a district-wide English language learning program.

About 96 percent of current and former ELL students in FUSD graduate from high school, Kelley said. That's an achievement she credits to increased teaching time per student through money provided by the desegregation tax levy.

“Desegregation is hugely connected to that,” she said. “It’s difficult for students who are navigating learning English but also at the same time learning content.”

The district’s use of the money is subject to both state and federal auditing processes designed to show the district’s compliance with laws regarding how the money must be used, Kelley said.

“We don’t buy things with (desegregation),” Kelley said. “In my experience, the best way we can steward this money is by paying for highly trained people who work with students.”

According to district documentation, only three positions funded by desegregation money are not directly instructional.

“About 95 percent of the money goes directly into classrooms,” Kelley said. “98 percent is used for salaries --  most are for people who interact directly with students.”

'BRIDGE TO PEACE'

At Puente de Hozho, whose title includes the Spanish word “Puente” meaning bridge, and the Navajo word “hozho” meaning peace, balance, beauty and harmony, students in classes include kids who are learning in a first or second language.

Children who speak Spanish at home are in class with students learning Spanish as a second language, and can help one another learning both language and academic content.

In Luis Melo’s fourth- and fifth-grade Spanish immersion class, students take turns discussing a short story they read in front of the class, entirely in Spanish.

“Our aim is to develop proficiency in the language,” Melo said. “Proficiency means reading and writing in other subjects. Some classes do science, math or reading in both languages.”

The educational model at Puente de Hozho drew Melo to move to Flagstaff from his native country of Chile after trying to start his own bilingual education program there. He and his students visited Flagstaff while working on perfecting their English, and eventually decided he wanted to teach at the school.

In Melo’s class, students study literature, reading and writing in Spanish. Other teachers in the school teach science or social studies in Spanish.

“We want to emphasize the appropriate use of the language,” Melo said. “For some of the kids, Spanish is their first language, but we want them to use academic language.”

MORE EMPATHETIC

Across the hall, in the Navajo immersion class, teacher James Jones reviews verb conjugations for the phrase “to warm up.” The phrase corresponds with a story the class is reading.

Jones said his students have worked their way up from writing a paragraph in their daily journal to writing one page a day, entirely in Navajo.

The class also does weather observations and grammar lessons in Navajo, Jones said.

Because there is not much course material available in Navajo, Jones said he creates most of his own worksheets and course material.

“I’m hoping the kids keep the language going,” Jones said. “I want them to keep reading and writing in Navajo alive.”

Robert Kelty, the principal at Puente de Hozho, said studies have shown that people who are bilingual are more empathetic and their brains function differently.

“I’ve always been inspired by how the district uses this funding,” Kelty said. “We truly do desegregate, and this is exactly what the desegregation law was about.”

If the bill in the Arizona Senate were to pass and the district did not secure the votes to keep desegregation funding, Kelley said the schools and services that benefit from the money would not be eliminated, but money would have to be shifted around to keep them.

“We always talk about what would happen if we lose funding, especially large amounts of funding,” Kelley said. “We would always serve our students, but I’m not sure about where we would get the money.”

The reporter can be reached at cvanek@azdailysun.com or 556-2249.

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