Denver Schools Settle Bilingual Dispute

After months of fighting, federal agency agrees to the district's plans to educate 14,000 kids.

Denver Public Schools and the U.S. Department of Justice settled their dispute about how to educate the district’s 14,000 bilingual students, officials said Tuesday.

After 1 1/2 years of threats and accusations of discrimination, the federal agency agreed to let the district do most everything it wanted to do all along, said board member Rita Montero, who helped negotiate the deal.

For its part, DPS has agreed to let the federal government monitor its efforts.
”They tried to make us scream uncle from the beginning and intimidate the district,” Montero said. ”I don’t think we would sign off on anything if they made us scream uncle.

”It’s a huge step. I think everyone is relieved.”
Details of the deal will be released Thursday during a board meeting. The Department of Justice has no comment until then, said spokeswoman Christine DiBartolo.

The issue is critical for DPS. More than 20 percent of its students have limited English ability and 90 percent of those speak Spanish. The number is expected to keep growing as immigration from Mexico continues.

Just over half of Hispanic students ever graduate, and Hispanics make up half the district’s 66,000 enrollment.

Opponents of the district’s program predicted the deal will not bring about quality education for bilingual students, 90 percent of whom speak Spanish.

”It gives us more of a mediocre program, which they expect parents to accept, ” said David Portillo, director of Padres Unidos, a grass-roots group that’s been vocal in demanding up to seven years of instruction in a native tongue.

”It doesn’t give quality native language instruction, and they try to exit them before they’ve achieved in English or Spanish.”
A key goal of the district’s plan is to move students into English-speaking classes in three years. But district officials say they will not force unprepared students into mainstream classes.

The agreement also means the district will continue to receive more than $30 million in federal aid. Federal officials had threatened to withhold the money to force their will on DPS.

The dispute dates to 1984 when the Congress of Hispanic Educators won a federal lawsuit that forced the district to offer formal bilingual education. It became part of the district’s busing case, which was dismissed in 1995.
But court supervision remains today. Federal Judge Richard Matsch must approve the agreement.

After a two-year inquiry into complaints from parents, the civil rights division of the Department of Education claimed in mid-1997 that DPS discriminated by not providing enough teachers who are fluent in the languages they teach. It also had too few bilingual books and materials, and too little support for students in their native languages in mainstream classrooms. The case was referred to the Department of Justice for a possible lawsuit.

Despite the claims, the district moved ahead with its plan. The district no longer has a bilingual department – instead, it has the English Language Acquisition program.

The district wants students mainstreamed into English-only classes when they are conversant in English and competent in basic subjects in their native tongues. Too many students languished in Spanish-only classes for years, officials said.

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