VIDEO: Bilingualism is an Asset, Not a Deficit, says Kathy Hoffman, Arizona’s Newly Elected Superintendent of Public Instruction

As a child, Arizona’s newly elected Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman had the privilege of studying in a Japanese emersion program, taking half of her courses in English and half in Japanese. She followed this tract from kindergarten through eighth grade, then learned Spanish, a more marketable skill for a state with a large Spanish-speaking Latino population.

These unique multilingual learning experiences contributed to her five-year career as an educator in the Arizona public school system, serving preschool teacher, a speech therapist, and a life skills coach for children with disabilities, some of whom are also English learners (ELs) or struggle to communicate in any language.

“Through my life, I’ve had numerous doors opened for me—both academic and professional because of my multilingual skills, so I personally know the benefits of speaking multiple languages,” Hoffman told the audience at an UnidosUS education policy summit in Phoenix last month. “That’s why I always have been and always will be an advocate for expanding bilingual education in Arizona.”

That message resonated with voters during this year’s midterm elections. Hoffman, beat her more experienced opponent, Republican Frank Riggs, a charter school executive and former US Congressman for California.

“My win is our win. This is a win for public education for Arizona, affirming that the best education experts are the ones who have spent time in the classroom,” she told the audience, as she shared some of the lessons learned from the field.

She noted, for example that she watched students with disabilities grow confident and productive through a life skills class she taught in which the students learned to  interact with the public in real and meaningful ways, such as through sales and customer service. But this year, the program was cancelled to make room for the special instruction of ELs.

Under Arizona’s Structured English Emersion law, these students must spend four hours of their day in Structured English Emersion (SEI), a practice critics complain detracts from their learning of other subjects. There are some 80,000 ELs in the state of Arizona, and when a school accumulates a lot of them, they are required to “create” a classroom to accommodate them, explained Hoffman, adding that now two groups of vulnerable students would be negatively impacted.

“Schools are not creating a classroom. We are taking away from some other classroom, whether that’s a resource classroom or an intervention classroom or a life skills classroom, there’s no extra classrooms lying around our schools,” she said, adding that it was horrifying to lose see that program replaced with an SEI one she considers ineffective.

“Look no further than the data,” added Hoffman, noting that only 18% of ELs actually graduate high school, the lowest percentage in the country.

And while she calls it a massive fail, she sees her upcoming tenure as an opportunity to rally around bilingual classrooms.

“To me, this represents an opportunity in our state. They have so much potential. We need to view their multilingualism as a professional asset and a benefit rather than a deficit,” she said.  “Bilingual education has been such a focus for me. I will make it a priority for the state going forward.”

-Hoffman’s introduction was given by UnidosUS Arizona Education Organizer Ylenia Aguilar. Text by Progress Report Senior Web Content Manager Julienne Gage. Video by Frank Thomas. 


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