DPS' bilingual education faulted

Federal monitor cites structure, resources

Denver Public Schools’ bilingual-education program is likely to fail without better organization and more resources, according to the program’s federal court monitor.

The program suffers from a faulty computer system, inconsistent testing and inadequate staffing, according to progress reports filed with the U.S. District Court in Denver by Ernest R. House, a University of Colorado-Boulder education professor.

Some students were assigned to classes conducted in Spanish merely because they have Spanish surnames, House found.

DPS says the problems are to be expected with the startup of such a large project and will be fixed.

House was appointed by Judge Richard Matsch to monitor the district’s compliance with a settlement reached last year in a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of Hispanic students and teachers.

The settlement laid out a course of studies in which Spanish-speaking children start out taking most classes in Spanish and switch gradually to English within three years. Before that, there was no clear plan on when to mainstream them.

The program, known as English Language Acquisition, or ELA, is ending its first school year. At the end of 2001-02, as the first batch of children is mainstreamed, House will make a more detailed report to Matsch that could result in the court order being lifted or extended.

House has filed three bulletins – in August, December and April – and his initial optimism faded over the months.

In August, he said DPS seemed to have sufficient teaching materials, and teacher training had gone smoothly. ‘In visits to some of these training classes, I found the instructors to be sharp, practical, lively, and on target,’ he wrote.

He expressed some concern that DPS’s management structure, which lets individual schools create their own curricula, could be at odds with a court-mandated program districtwide. To combat this, DPS brought in a new computer system.

‘Information from the schools will be fed to the central ELA program
office the day after the data are recorded in the school,’ he wrote. ‘This information would provide for monitoring the classification and placement of students in the program.’

That didn’t happen. The system ‘has not been successfully implemented and may never be what was envisioned originally,’ House wrote on April 24, the most recent report. ‘In fact, principals and teachers have become dismissive of the information system.’

A teacher in a predominantly Hispanic elementary school bore that out in an interview Friday. ‘In order to make informed decisions, you should have access to data, but you can’t get data,’ the teacher told The Denver Post.

Jose Perea, executive director of ELA, said the district’s computer experts have told him the system should be working by autumn.

House also found that in some schools, untrained clerks decided what classes to put students in. ‘This practice has led to inappropriate assignments of students, who may be placed in classes because the class size is smaller or simply because they have Spanish surnames,’ he wrote in April.

Clerks will get ELA training next year, Perea said.

Tension between schools and central administrators could hamper the program, House wrote in the December report.

‘The issue is whether the ELA staff has sufficient authority to induce principals to change,’ he wrote. ‘Also, some principals are not well informed about the agreement, even when they think they are.’

DPS instituted mandatory ELA training for principals to improve coordination.

One principal told The Denver Post that teachers are suffering under the burden of deciding which students get placed in which classes – ELA classes conducted mainly in Spanish, ELA classes conducted mainly in English, or regular English classes.

‘When does all that work take place?’ the principal said. ‘Any time we call in a substitute teacher, which costs us money, we essentially stop the educational process.’

House is spending a sabbatical year at Stanford and returns to Denver to inspect schools at the district’s expense. He spoke with The Denver Post about his duties but declined to comment on his findings.

DPS’s Perea said he’s not overly concerned. ‘It’s certainly not a surprise,’ he said. ‘We have 96 sites where we provide program services. So to get consistency in 96 sites in eight months is certainly our goal, but I’ve been in this district long enough to know that there would be some glitches and we would have to provide further training.’

And one ELA teacher said she’s happy with the program because her second-graders have made great progress in reading this year – in both languages.

A plaintiffs’ lawyer said it’s too early to tell whether House’s findings indicate ELA is doomed. More data will be needed when the parties meet in two years to discuss whether to lift the court order, said Roger Rice, co-executive director of Multicultural Education Training and Advocacy.

‘The reports he’s issued so far have been of a general nature,’ Rice said.

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