Title I Dollars To LEP Pupils On the Increase

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Longmont, Colo.

Chally Weiner welcomes two Title I students to class on a recent Wednesday and tells them they will read, write, and talk about the four seasons over the course of their morning lesson.

But instead of discussing "spring, summer, fall, and winter," the first-year teacher schools them on "primavera, verano, otono, y invierno."

Ms. Weiner spends the half-hour session speaking in Spanish--a language increasingly heard in classes financed by the $7.1 billion federal program designed to boost academic achievement among children who score lowest on traditional assessments. Most often, those children come from impoverished areas.

For the past four years, Rocky Mountain Elementary School and three other schools here in Colorado's St. Vrain Valley school district have offered a rising population of Mexican immigrants a Spanish reading program modeled after its English-language Title I counterpart. In fact, under the district's curriculum, Ms. Weiner's young students will receive most of their instruction in Spanish and only move into an English-only classroom in the 6th grade.

Like St. Vrain Valley, school districts across the country are dedicating more Title I money than ever to non-English-speaking children, federal officials say.

In the 1994-95 school year, about 1.2 million out of the 6.5 million Title I students had limited proficiency in English, a 17 percent increase from the previous year, according to Mary Jean LeTendre, the Title I director at the U.S. Department of Education.

And, the two most recent school years, for which the Education Department has not yet collected its latest data, will also show an increase, she predicted. The number of such children in Title I has grown consistently over the past two years, Ms. LeTendre said in a recent interview.

School districts throughout Colorado, observers here say, are following the lead of the St. Vrain Valley schools, a 17,000-student system in the shadows of the Rocky Mountains about 45 miles north of Denver.

In 1993, as the local immigrant population started to grow, school officials here decided to use federal bilingual education money to test the effectiveness of their elementary school reading program for Spanish-speaking students, said Tom Gibbons, the supervisor of student services for the St. Vrain Valley schools.

In the first year, one teacher at Rocky Mountain Elementary School tutored three Spanish-speaking students in a series of regular, half-hour lessons in their native language modeled after a district reading program.

Those 1st grade students started with no literacy skills, but now are reading above grade level, said Brook Koski, the teacher who translated the program into Spanish and worked with the first group.

After a second year in the pilot stage, the Spanish-speaking program--now called "Buen Comienzo" which means "Right Start"--was folded into the district's $1 million Title I program in the 1995-96 school year.

What's Ahead

While the district technically could have spent federal Title I money on limited-English-proficient students before the 1995-96 school year, bureaucratic requirements had stopped them. Before then, districts had to prove that LEP students would have qualified for Title I help even if the students did not have language difficulties.

The burden of proof dissuaded the school system from spending Title I dollars on Spanish-speaking students, Mr. Gibbons said.

But in the 1994 reauthorization of Title I, Congress made LEP students automatically eligible for the program starting in the 1995-96 school year. "We were ready to hit the ground running," he said.

The change allows places such as Rocky Mountain Elementary School to supplement bilingual instruction with Title I money and programming for young children who are struggling to read.

When Congress made the change, it hoped programs such as the one here would thrive, according to a Senate report written at the time.

Congress wanted to give schools the chance to help LEP students in Title I if it were "beneficial to the students and more efficient to do so," says the report describing the bill the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee approved. "Students should not be labeled and segregated by federal categorical program for audit purposes alone," it adds.

While the growth in LEP students in Title I here happened after the changes that took effect in the 1995-96 school year, the latest nationwide data from the federal Education Department don't reflect that change in the law. "I would expect to see significant increases when people are more familiar with the legislation," Ms. LeTendre said.

And the growth won't be in Spanish programs alone, Ms. LeTendre added. Minnesota and Wisconsin, for example, are seeing influxes of students speaking Asian languages.

Bilingual 'Buzz Saw'

In a lesson at St. Vrain Valley's Columbine Elementary School, teacher Nina Amabile leads three students meticulously through a book on spiders. Most of the conversation, like the text, is in Spanish. The goal is to have the students reading at grade level in their own language by 6th grade.

By learning to read in their native language first, students learn how to decipher written language and are ready to tackle a second language in middle school, said Kathy Escamilla, an associate professor at the University of Colorado at Denver, who specializes in bilingual education and has studied bilingual students' progress in St. Vrain Valley schools.

Ms. Escamilla's point of view is not, however, universal.

One critic of the approach is Rosalie Porter, the director of the Amherst, Mass.-based Institute for Research in English Acquisition and Development. "The older you get the harder it is to make the switch" to a new language, Ms. Porter said. "When you start at kindergarten or 1st grade, it is much easier to begin speaking the second language and then read in it."

Ms. Porter said schools in places such as Bethlehem, Pa.; Fairfax, Va.; and Westminster, Calif., are moving toward English instruction for LEP students in the early grades. They found that bilingual approaches that relied on teaching in the native language did not help students learn a new language later, she said.

Politically charged arguments over the nature of bilingual instruction could raise roadblocks to efforts in St. Vrain Valley and elsewhere, according to some experts.

"The problem is that you run into the bilingual education buzz saw and the very controversial issue of what the language of instruction should be for these kids," said Claude Goldenberg, an associate professor of education at California State University-Long Beach. "It's controversial enough to determine whether to spend Title I money on aides, pullouts, or special programs. When you factor in the bilingual angle, it becomes a messy stew."

In California, school districts are seeking--and often winning--waivers from the state education department to completely eliminate bilingual education, Mr. Goldenberg said. In that atmosphere, LEP students aren't likely to recognize the benefits of Title I, he said.

LEP students elsewhere face other battles. Many Title I directors are unaware that they are allowed to include language-minority students in their programs, and some are unwilling to do so, according to one bilingual education advocate.

"In some cases, we have what could be portrayed as defiance of the law," said James J. Lyons, the executive director of the Washington-based National Association for Bilingual Education, which lobbied Congress to make LEP students automatically eligible for Title I.

"I'm not sure at what point you move from gentle persuasion and public proclamations to enforcement," he said. "I'm not sure we're at that point quite yet ... but at some point the department [of education] is going to have to grapple with it."

The Four Seasons

When Ms. Weiner starts her lesson on the four seasons, four other groups--one in Spanish and three in English--are working on similar tasks.

Ms. Weiner begins by asking the two boys in her Spanish-speaking group what they know about the seasons. They sit silently, revealing no knowledge of the difference between winter and summer--even in their own language.

"A lot of times, we see in this population ... they were deprived of the enrichment in the home," Ms. Koski tells an observer as the lesson starts.

Ms. Weiner then shows her pupils Las Estaciones, the book they will read that day. It offers simple declarative statements illustrated with drawings. One boy reads slowly. Ms. Weiner corrects him gently when he errs. The other boy follows along, running his finger under words as his classmate reads them. A third student normally in the class, a girl, is absent.

Once the book is read, the students move on to tasks designed to test comprehension and build vocabulary. They each write in a journal about their favorite seasons. One boy likes the spring, he explains, because of the flowers.

At the end of the session, the two boys can name three of the four seasons.

The instruction is elemental--even for 1st graders--but it marks progress for the boys, who had few language skills at the beginning of the school year, according to Ms. Koski, who now coaches teachers in the Spanish-language reading program she designed.

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