Denver Public Schools leaders Thursday promised re-energized bilingual
education in a deal with federal agencies critical of the district’s practices.
Officials pledged to expand parents’ power to make decisions about their children. The decision on whether to enroll or remove students from bilingual classes will be based on more than one standardized test. Tests results, oral ability, class performance and teacher observations will be used for evaluation.
The district wants students moved to English- speaking classes in three years but promised that unprepared students will get more time.
”We believe transition begins the day students enter the program,” said Wayne Eckerling, an assistant superintendent.
All schools that offer bilingual classes must adopt the program, eliminating variations that are now common, according to the agreement the school board approved Thursday with the U.S. Department of Justice.
”It will not enable school staffs to do any free-lancing,” said Superintendent Irv Moskowitz. ”There’s a set goal, a clear mission.”
Denver U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch ordered bilingual education 15 years ago but the district never wholeheartedly implemented it. To prevent further neglect, an independent expert will evaluate the program annually for at least three years. University of Colorado education professor Ernest House has that job.
Qualified teachers, support from district experts and adequate funding are part of the plan.
Matsch must sign off on the program. If he does, it will take off next fall in 75 of 81 elementaries, 14 of 18 middle schools and half the 10 high schools.
More than 20 percent of the district’s 66,000 students – 14,660 – have limited English ability. Nearly 90 percent speak Spanish. Most of the rest speak Vietnamese, Russian or Khmer, the language of Cambodia.
The district developed much of its program two years ago. Soon after that the U.S. Department of Education completed a two-year probe that alleged the district discriminated against non-English speakers by offering poor instruction and materials.
The Education Department then asked the Justice Department to sue the district or force change.
The Justice Department focused on the program, not complaints of behavior, Moskowitz said. Investigators asked lots of ”what if” questions, critiqued and fine-tuned the program.
”It’s time to focus on the classroom, not the courtroom,” Bill Lann Lee, acting assistant attorney general for civil rights said in a statement.
That’s why the district will now implement pretty much what it wanted to do in the first place, Moskowitz said.
Critics of the plan say they’re worrying about mainstreaming students in three years instead of five or seven. They also consider the emphasis on English insults students’ native languages and culture.
”The emphasis that it’s English fast and furious and only is what concerns me,” said Sheila Shannon, an education professor at the University of Colorado at Denver and a representative of the Denver Association for Bilingual Education. ”School should be about maintenance, maintaining the whole child.”
Shannon and other critics said they doubt the district’s sincerity after 15 years of nonchalance. ”It remains to be seen” if oversight by House and the Justice Department will help, Shannon said.
Denver Public Schools uses two approaches to teach students who do not speak
English Language Acquisition: This is primarily for Spanish speakers who make up 90 percent of the district’s 14,660 students requiring bilingual education. They learn subject content in Spanish so they don’t fall behind. They are taught to read, write and speak English separately until they can handle more instruction in English.
English as a Second Language: There is no curriculum in other native languages. Most common are Vietnamese, Russian or Khmer, the language spoken in Cambodia. Those students are taught English and most subjects in classes of English-speaking students. Some tutors help them individually make the transition from their native tongue.