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D.C. School Bilingual Plan Pits Black, Hispanic Parents

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When District of Columbia officials won a grant to launch an intensive bilingual program at an elementary school, they expected teachers and parents to hail the chance for all students to learn both Spanish and English.

But the $675,000 federal grant has stirred tensions this fall at H.D. Cooke Elementary School and its surrounding community. In some cases, the controversy has pitted the neighborhood's African-American residents against the immigrants from Central America who live among them.

"This plan has created factions in the school that weren't there before," said John Traina, a preschool teacher at Cooke who is active in the teachers' union. "It used to be pretty peaceful."

A parents' meeting late last month to discuss the grant became so heated that it had to be called off early, said Beverly P. Lofton, a spokeswoman for Superintendent of Schools Franklin L. Smith.

The U.S. Education Department grant would, next fall, allow educators to start a developmental, or two-way, bilingual program at the school. In a two-way program, speakers of two languages are educated in the same class and learn in both languages. The Education Department currently provides funds for 61 such programs.

Disputes over federal aid for bilingual programs are rare, said James J. Lyons, the executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education. Such controversies usually stem from a lack of planning or community input, he added.

A big concern of parents and teachers at Cooke Elementary is that some longtime teachers, many of them black, could be replaced because they are not bilingual. They also fear the school will no longer serve neighborhood children and instead will become a magnet school for students across the city.

Some say they believe English-speaking students do not have as much to gain under the plan, and many teachers believe they should have had more say when the grant proposal was drafted, Mr. Traina said.

Elena Izquierdo, the director of the school district's office of language-minority affairs, which drafted the proposal, said the federal money will benefit all of Cooke's students.

She said there is no need to transfer or fire teachers and no plan to establish a magnet school at Cooke. Ms. Izquierdo emphasized that the specifics of how the grant will be implemented are still negotiable.

Tensions Persist

But some parents remain unconvinced.

"This school has been multicultural since day one," said Nancy Bryant, a black parent who lives half a block from Cooke Elementary. "But they didn't want to put any money into it until it said 'bilingual.' That's just not right." Ms. Bryant, who has two children at Cooke and who went to school there herself, has joined about 30 other parents who have requested a meeting with Superintendent Smith.

"We want to keep the teachers we already know--we don't want strangers teaching our kids," she said.

But Rafael Lanuza, who lives across the street from the school, said he thinks his 7-year-old daughter could benefit from the plan. He moved to the United States from Nicaragua nine years ago.

"I think the opposition is coming a little bit from racism, because most of it is coming from blacks," Mr. Lanuza charged in Spanish. "I think sometimes they don't really want us [Hispanics] here."

Many teachers asked to comment about the plan declined. Some said they had not yet made up their minds about it, while others said they did not want to add to the controversy.

In the meantime, Cooke Elementary's principal, Marjorie L. Myers, has asked teachers and parents to come up with suggestions for making the plan more palatable.

A Mixed Population

Ms. Izquierdo said her office picked Cooke Elementary School for the grant because the mix of students there naturally lends itself to a two-way program. Cooke is about 60 percent Hispanic and 40 percent black.

Of its 434 students, 269 have limited English proficiency; the vast majority of them are native Spanish-speakers.

Some parents and teachers had voiced concern that Cooke would follow the model of Washington's only existing two-way bilingual public school, which draws students from across the city.

The original Cooke proposal called for students starting in prekindergarten or kindergarten next fall to receive 80 percent of their instruction in Spanish and the remainder in English. But school officials said last week they will likely use a 50-50 model as a result of the criticism.

The grant is for $225,000 a year for three years. Each year, the program would spread to the next grade level.

"I think the end result is that this experience will pull us back together, even though it's tense right now," Ms. Myers said.

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