Inside a North High School American history class a teacher routinely greets his students and begins his instruction.
He divides his 12 students into two groups to play a history quiz game dealing with United States national and international affairs.
The teacher asks his first question:
”Who was the American president who bombed Japan?”
A student promptly raises her hand: ”Truman!” The teacher awards a point for her team.
”True or false? President Nixon was thrown out of office.”
A student puts his hand in the air. ”He resigned from office.” The teacher gives the young man’s team a point.
Normal and fun classroom instruction. But all the questions and answers are in Spanish, and not all the students are U.S.-born. Most arrived in Colorado from Latin America only recently.
Teacher David Mirich plays some background cumbias and banda music for the students as they prepare to improvise a skit on the reaction of Vietnam veterans to the return of American servicemen from the Persian Gulf War.
Mirich’s American history class is part of the Denver Public Schools bilingual program, which teaches limited-English speaking students in their native language.
For Mirich and other supporters of bilingual education this is the best and only way to instruct young Spanish-speaking students so they won’t fall behind their English-language classmates. The intention is to teach the students the core subjects of math, science and social studies in Spanish.
Meanwhile, the students must take at least one English course to help them phase into English-speaking classes. At North High School next year, students also will be allowed two elective courses in which they will be given English instruction.
A 1984 federal court ruling requires Denver schools to provide limited English-speaking children a bilingual education.
Yet some schools have not complied and many Spanish-speaking youngsters have been taught core subjects in English.
At North, administrators said they have been aware of the problem for the last two years and have tried to correct it.
Some question whether it’s better to teach Spanish-speaking students in classrooms where both languages are spoken. The students themselves are divided on the issue, but all say their ultimate goal is to master English.
More than a third of the Hispanic students in the district – about 10,000 – are considered limited-English speakers. The number enrolled in bilingual classes fluctuates wildly from week to week because many of these students move frequently. Each year, 1,000 more students with a limited command of English enter the school system.
Proponents of the bilingual program say no matter how many students show up they must get teachers’ full attention.
”This is what it comes down to: serving the kids. Let’s do it,” said Mirich, who was named teacher of the year by the National Association of Bilingual Educators.
He says the law is on his side. ”If we’re not doing it, let’s do it. But let’s be leaders and get beyond the court order and into common sense and into equal educational rights.”
Maria Quezada, 15, has studied under Mirich since middle school. She is starting to converse more in English but says she’s struggling.
”I’m living over here now so it’s important that I learn English,” Quezada said.
Julia Esther Godina, the mother of Ramiro Godina, a North student, said her son probably would have dropped out of school if bilingual education hadn’t been provided when the family came to Colorado eight years ago. Ramiro graduated this spring.
Ramiro, who speaks fluent English, has a four-year scholarship to Metropolitan State College of Denver. His goal is to become a high school teacher.
”I would like to give something back to the community,” said Ramiro, 17. ”Teachers have given me the opportunity to help them with class and even bilingual classes.”
”Ramiro always had a lot of support from his bilingual teachers,” his mother said. ”It’s important for the students who recently arrived to learn English and they’ll gradually learn it little by little. But teaching them in Spanish gives them confidence. Otherwise if they’re in a classroom where they’re taught in English and they don’t even understand any of it, it becomes very traumatic and desperate for them.”
Ramiro said the consequences for such students could be devastating. Many of his friends dropped in discouragement at not understanding a subject in English.
”If you teach English to a kid from Mexico it becomes harder for them,” he said. ”They get scared easily. That’s one of the main points.”
Veronica Montes, 18, a North student who also received a four-year scholarship to Metro, said she favors bilingual education but differs on how it should be administered.
Montes, who wants to become a bilingual instructor, said she believes DPS’ bilingual program goes too far. Montes received bilingual instruction when she went to school in California but the subjects were taught in both languages and not exclusively in one.
”They already know their Spanish and they come to learn English. That’s what they come here for,” Montes said of her classmates.
”Since I was in kindergarten I had bilingual teachers all the way to the eighth grade. My teacher would talk to us in English and when we didn’t understand something she would explain it to us in Spanish.”
Montes also had friends who dropped out of classes taught exclusively in English.
”I had a friend and she stopped going to class,” Montes said. ”She said, ‘Why go to my teacher’s class if she doesn’t understand me and I don’t understand her?’ ”