English-Language Learners

Denver Hispanics Assail Bilingual Ed. Plan

By Lynn Schnaiberg — April 30, 1997 5 min read

School officials insist they are listening, but they say competing visions of what Denver’s program should be may preclude a consensus among all parties.

“The program is not proving to be educationally successful. Kids are not achieving,” said Susan G. Edwards, the president of the Denver school board. “Kids go into the program and never leave it.”

The district’s plan, which requires the board’s approval and possible consideration by a federal judge, would likely affect everything from how students are deemed eligible for language help to what kind of help they receive.

Denver officials last week underscored that students who need bilingual education, which includes instruction in their native language, would continue to receive it under the proposed changes. But emphasis would be placed on introducing students to English more quickly and moving them into all-English classes after three years. Students who needed native-language instruction after that period would receive individualized instruction plans and be closely monitored.

Critics of the plan, however, say the problem with bilingual education in Denver is not the program itself, but the district’s poor implementation and support of it. They charge that the plan would severely undercut bilingual education and harm children.

“What’s happened in Denver is that the program has been ineffectively implemented,” said Ram¢n Del Castillo, a co-chairman of the Latino Education Coalition, an umbrella group of Denver-area Hispanic groups. “We are after educational equity and justice. We want our kids to be bilingual, period.”

Roughly 20 percent of the district’s 64,000 students have limited proficiency in English; the vast majority are Spanish speakers from Denver’s growing Hispanic population.

Although critics have staged rallies to protest the district’s proposals, Denver officials appear ready to forge ahead with them.

Long History

The debate over bilingual education in the district dates back more than a decade.

Since 1984, a federal consent decree has stipulated how Denver educates its limited-English-proficient students. That document was the result of a legal challenge brought against the district by the Denver Congress of Hispanic Educators.

In 1994, the CHE asked the federal district court to find Denver in contempt for failing to fully carry out the decree. That same year, the Latino Education Coalition led a student walkout to protest the district’s treatment of Hispanics and called for improved bilingual programs.

Rather than rule on the contempt-of-court motion, the judge suggested that the district come up with a plan to modify the consent decree, which the court would then review. (“Frustrated Hispanics Call for School Boycott in Denver,” Sept. 21, 1994.)

Denver officials maintain that in some areas, the decree has hampered efforts to improve education for LEP students.

For example, under the current system, students who speak only English but who live in a home where Spanish is spoken may wind up in a bilingual class.

And some teachers who are not truly bilingual are teaching in bilingual classes. While they pledge to become fully trained within two years, many instead use the bilingual spots as a launching point for finding other teaching jobs in the district, said Michael H. Jackson, the general counsel to the Denver schools.

While the consent decree talks about moving children into the mainstream, in practice such moves have been the exception rather than the rule, said Rita Montero, Denver’s sole Hispanic school board member.

In 1994-95, only 4.9 percent of all LEP students moved from bilingual and English-as-a-second-language programs into the mainstream.

“The protections we want are for the children, not the adults who work in this program,” said Ms. Montero, who has come under strong criticism from Hispanic groups for supporting the district’s plan.

Legal Hurdles Loom

Although the court ultimately must approve any changes in the consent decree, the district plans to move forward with other parts of the plan that school officials say do not require judicial review. Those proposed changes include beefing up staffing to monitor program accountability, bolstering teacher training, upgrading classroom materials, and keeping parents regularly apprised of their children’s progress in English.

Roger L. Rice, a lawyer with Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy Inc. in Somerville, Mass., who represents the plaintiffs, CHE, sees a legal showdown brewing.

“The district’s plan raises a zillion questions. Is this really an English-as-a-second-language program with a smattering of Spanish, or a real bilingual program?” Mr. Rice said. “They need to show why they need to do this. Our strongest argument is that they haven’t done what they were supposed to in the first place.”

Competing Visions

Mr. Rice is not the only one with questions.

“We’re still trying to decipher what all is going on,” said Bruce Dickinson, the executive director of the 2,900-member Denver Classroom Teachers Association. “Had we been involved early on in the process, we would not be at the point where we are today with everybody looking at each other and saying, well, what’s this really going to mean?”

While the district has held public hearings on the plan, Mr. Del Castillo of the Latino Education Coalition called them a “charade.”

“We believe they aren’t listening and have no intention of incorporating community input,” Mr. Del Castillo said. He noted that his group and others are wary because earlier draft plans leaked to the community suggested the district was considering an English-only approach with no native-language help.

School officials insist they are listening, but they say competing visions of what Denver’s program should be may preclude a consensus among all parties.

“We’ve heard from a very vocal, very political group of university folks and educators who believe strongly that bilingualism is good,” Ms. Edwards said. “I agree. But we need to be sure as a district that we’re accomplishing our primary objective, and that is graduating competent students literate in English so they can be successful.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 30, 1997 edition of Education Week

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