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New Colorado Plan Serves More Pupils

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Denver--Colorado's new English Language Proficiency Act, approved by the state legislature last spring amidst heated political debate, appears to be serving more non-English-speaking children than the bilingual program it replaced.

Unlike its predecessor, the new program is designed to help students who speak little or no English achieve English proficiency as rapidly as possible. In contrast, the controversial five-year-old bilingual-bicultural program focused on pupil proficiency in two languages, English and one other--usually Spanish.

Though the bilingual program had received praise in various evaluations, it fell victim to steadily decreasing annual funding from a Republican-controlled state legislature.

To carry out the new proficiency act, the state board of education last month approved grants of up to $358 per pupil to 107 of the state's 181 local school districts to aid 11,016 students who speak 66 different languages. This action means that 1,000 more students and 30 more local districts are eligible for aid than under last year's legislation.

State education officials cite three reasons for increased student and district participation:

More money is available. The legislature provided $2.8 million for the first year of the new proficiency program and only $1.8 million for the last year of the bilingual program.

How to use the money is a local decision. The new law allows districts to provide whatever kind of program they deem most effective--bilingual, English-as-a-second-language, or a tutorial approach. The old law mandated bilingual-bicultural classes.

The new program serves students in all grades, including the high-school level, whereas the bilingual programs focused on kindergarten-through-third-grade pupils.

According to Roger E. Neppl, director of planning and evaluation for the Colorado Department of Education, 27 districts have opted to retain bilingual-bicultural classes under the new program.

State Commissioner of Education Calvin M. Frazier, who supported enactment of the proficiency law, said it puts greater emphasis on helping children learn English and is easier to administer at both the state and local levels.

"There have been fewer political distractions," Mr. Frazier said of the new law, referring to the local power struggles that have dogged the bilingual program since its enactment by a Democratic legislature in 1975.

A Symbol of Reform

Many Hispanic-Americans in Colorado looked upon bilingual-bicultural education as a symbol of reform, a way to change school systems that they believed had traditionally shortchanged Chicano children. Many whites, on the other hand, believed the state was helping to finance an alien culture.

Last spring, legislative debate over the English Language Proficiency Act became so intense that at one point Hispanic legislators threatened to withdraw their support from Democratic Gov. Richard Lamm if he allowed the Republican-sponsored bill to become law.

Representative Federico Pena, minority leader of the Colorado House of Representatives, remains skeptical about the value of the new program. Mr. Pena, who opposed the proficiency law because "it shifts money away from Chicano kids who are native Coloradoans to foreign-born kids," said he was not surprised that 27 local districts had retained bilingual programs under the new law.

"Those are the only ones that are going to be effective," he said. Mr. Pena also questions the wisdom in terms of public policy of granting limited funds to many school districts that lack enough students to be able to mount effective programs.

Mr. Pena and Mr. Frazier are in rare agreement on one aspect of the new law: Both are concerned that there is no provision for a state-wide evaluation.

Instead, each local district will evaluate its own program within broad state guidelines, an approach they believe will make it impossible to compare the effectiveness of the proficiency program with that of its predecessor.

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