A three-year journey to English

Bilingual program at DPS aims to move kids to mainstream

Most of the 12,000 Spanish-speaking students enrolled in the Denver Public Schools’ fast-growing bilingual program would be taught exclusively in English after three years of native-language instruction, under a new plan released Thursday.

That would be a huge change for a program that, until now, has had no firm criteria for moving students into the mainstream. Over the years, many students remain in the program long after they’ve become proficient in English.

Criteria for entering the program also would be tightened under the plan,
which school officials hope to implement this fall. That could result in a cut of 4,000 students from bilingual-education rolls. Major hurdles DPS has a Hispanic dropout rate of nearly 50 percent, and 40 percent of the district’s Hispanic students speak limited English. Officials hope that teaching students English more effectively will put a dent in the dropout rate.

But the plan faces major hurdles before it can take effect.

Denver’s bilingual program has been under federal court jurisdiction since its inception in 1984. Either the Congress of Hispanic Educators, the plaintiff in the bilingual litigation, or Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch must approve major changes before they can take effect.

Lawyers and educators in the plaintiff group hadn’t seen the proposal Thursday and weren’t prepared to comment on it. But local Hispanic activists have complained that a three-year transition to learning exclusively in English is inadequate. Not successful While agreeing that the current program doesn’t do its job, they’ve also said the district bears the brunt of the blame for failing to implement it properly.

“Exiting kids from the bilingual program earlier won’t do any good because the mainstream program isn’t doing much for Latino kids, or other kids, for that matter,” said Patricio Cordova, director of the district’s Hispanic Education Advisory Council.

“The program has never been managed to be a success. This is like saying,
‘The car isn’t working, let’s get rid of it,’ when you haven’t ever tuned the car or put gas in it.”

School officials agreed that the program hasn’t worked well. The new plan,
they said, also will tighten accountability. Teachers not “fully qualified”
by 150 hours of training to teach students in Spanish would not be permitted to do so. Under the current program, some teachers still in training are teaching in Spanish full-time.

This change would require a significant boost in how much the district spends on training, but officials Thursday said they didn’t have a dollar figure.

Spanish-speaking students, 87 percent of all DPS students with limited English, are the only group taught all subject areas in their native language. Other non-English-speaking students are taught in what is called
“sheltered English.” Teachers use visual aids, limited vocabulary and theatrical techniques to reinforce lessons.

Under the new plan, Spanish-speaking students first would be taught in Spanish, but would be moved into “sheltered English” classes as quickly as possible.

“Historically, we have had some kids who have stayed in this program for their entire DPS career,” school board member Rita Montero said. “This will not happen in the future.”

Superintendent Irv Moskowitz stressed that not all students would be ready to learn in English after three years, “and to that end we will have to continue programs and structure them in more personalized ways.”

Tony Vigil, director of DPS’ bilingual department, estimated that 50 percent to 75 percent of bilingual students would be ready to learn exclusively in English after three years.

How students qualify would change dramatically as well. Currently, any student who lives with a relative who speaks a foreign language qualifies,
even if that student speaks English.

Also, students in the bilingual program who have scored below the 30th percentile on standardized reading tests have been kept in the program, even if they speak English well. But most English-speaking students in Denver score poorly, as well. The new plan would eliminate test scores as a reason for keeping students in the program.

That change alone could cut the rolls by about 4,000 students.

Board members stressed that the plan will not be final until the public has a chance to weigh in. Hearings are set for March 17 at Manual High, 1700 E.
28th Ave.; April 7 at West High, 951 Elati St.; and April 14 at Lincoln High, 2285 S. Federal Blvd. All are scheduled for 7 p.m.

Alan Gottlieb’s e-mail address is alangot@rmii.com

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