Leticia Barron is worried about her children now that the Denver school district has adopted a “three-years-and-out” bilingual education policy.
“I don’t want my kids to lose their Spanish,” said Barron, a 27-year-old native of Juarez, Mexico, whose two sons attend Ebert Elementary School in Denver. “It’s who they are. It’s part of their identity.”
After several years of fighting with the federal government, Denver Public Schools now has the go-ahead to enact a fast-track approach to bilingual
education. The 14,000-plus students in DPS who don’t speak English – the vast majority of them from Mexico and Latin America – will generally be moved into English-only classes after a maximum of three years in bilingual classes.
But even though the U.S. Department of Justice has signed off on the plan, Barron and plenty of others remain skeptical.
Many Hispanics worry that in the rush to get students into English-only classes, Denver will be robbing their children of their ethnicity and cultural heritage. Similar concerns are being echoed throughout the country, including in Arizona, California and other states that have restricted or eliminated bilingual education.
“If you want to destroy a people, take away the language, because the culture will follow,” said Roberto Cruz of the National Hispanic University in San Jose, Calif.
Indeed, many Hispanic activists in Denver admit that their drive against limiting the amount of bilingual instruction in DPS has stemmed, in part, from a desire to preserve their culture in Denver schools.
“Look at what happened with Native Americans. It was cultural genocide,” said Ramon Del Castillo, co-chairman of Denver’s Latino Education Coalition. “We’re trying to prevent that.”
DPS Superintendent Irv Moskowitz, who led the charge to implement the three-years-and-out program, said the district is sensitive to cultural concerns. But Moskowitz said he can’t afford to let that dictate how students are taught English in the classroom.
“Our first order of business is to make sure these children do well in this country,” Moskowitz said. “To do that, they have to be on their feet with the English language.”
The Denver school board approved the new bilingual education program this month, after a recently concluded federal review by the Justice Department and the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The probe, launched in July 1997, was prompted by a complaint filed by a group of Hispanic parents in Denver dissatisfied with the bilingual education program.
Among the federal government’s findings were that DPS had numerous unqualified bilingual teachers in the classroom and that it was not spending the resources necessary for its bilingual children, which make up 22 percent of the district’s 69,000 students.
DPS spent more than $ 100,000 in attorneys’ fees and travel expenses, as school officials went a half-dozen times to Washington, D.C., to try to reach an agreement with the feds. Meanwhile, Hispanic parents in Denver picketed at meetings and called for Moskowitz’s resignation.
In the end, however, Moskowitz and the Denver school board got what they wanted – the authority and freedom to move students out of bilingual education after three years. In addition to the three-year time limit, the plan also calls
A reduced reliance on standardized test scores in determining when a child is ready to move out of bilingual classes. Instead, teams of teachers and administrators will weigh a variety of factors to determine when a child is ready to be “mainstreamed” into English-only classes. Previously, scores were the dominant criteria – something that often kept kids in bilingual classes for much of their school career.
Extensive training in bilingual education for all the district’s 4,000 teachers. Teachers who will be dealing mostly with Spanish-speaking kids must be able to show proficiency in reading, writing and understanding Spanish.
The ability to exempt certain students from the three-year goal if they need additional native-language instruction.
“It was a long road,” Moskowitz said. “But we now have assurances that we won’t slight students one way or another. This program is a very rich, comprehensive and student-focused plan for all of our English-language learners.”
Proponents of unlimited bilingual education say students should be taught in their native language, then gradually put into English classes, even if the transition takes seven or eight years. They reason that if their children aren’t fluent in their own language, they can’t be expected to master another.
Others, though, are critical of unlimited bilingual education, saying it allows students to languish in bilingual classes long after they have become fluent in English. That, they say, is a major reason why test scores among Hispanic students are low.
U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch must still approve the Denver plan, something that is expected to happen soon, and DPS plans to fully implement the new bilingual program starting in the 1999-2000 school year. The new program is already being used in some form or another at a handful of schools.
Jose Perea, DPS’ director of bilingual education – “English Language Acquisition,” as it was renamed this year – assured that the district is not sacrificing Hispanic culture in its push to speed up how quickly kids learn English.
“The idea that culture is lost with language is not necessarily the case,” Perea said. “Our charge is to provide successful individuals who can participate in society as successful people.”
Perea added that a “Latino curriculum” called “Alma de la Raza” (Soul of the
People) is being phased into DPS over the next five years. All students, for example, will learn about Mexican historical figures like Emiliano Zapata and Benito Juarez, as well as about the work of Mexican and Hispanic artists.
“We are actually doing much more than any other school district in the state,” Perea said. “If a Mexican student goes to Cherry Creek, all they get is ESL (English as a second language). There’s no worry about culture.”
But Pam Martinez, co-chair of Padres Unidos, the Hispanic parents’ group that filed the complaint that sparked the federal investigation in Denver, is unconvinced.
“Losing culture is a big concern for many parents,” she said.
Martinez says she was “insulted” by Perea’s appointment this school year as chief of bilingual education, noting that when he was principal of Valdez Elementary School in northwest Denver, Perea’s students had some of the lowest test scores in reading and writing in the district.
Bilingual education, she said, is not only about teaching students English but also a part of the continuing struggle for equality, dignity and justice for Mexicans and Chicanos in the United States.
“Every parent wants their kid to learn English, but the question is what’s the best way to learn English,” Martinez said. “There has to be some compromise.”
Like many Hispanic activists and critics of the DPS bilingual plan, Martinez cut her teeth during the Chicano civil-rights struggles of the 1960s and 1970s.
Ramon Del Castillo participated in a lettuce boycott to protest the treatment of Mexican farm workers while a student at the University of Northern Colorado in the late 1960s. Nita Gonzales, another vocal opponent of the DPS plan, is the daughter of longtime Chicano activist Corky Gonzales, who started the Crusade for Justice movement in Colorado during the 1960s.
“It’s justice we’re really talking about, getting our kids to compete with any child,” Del Castillo said.
Denver’s Hispanic community is far from unified on the issue, however.
For every Leticia Barron, there is a Lorraine Dominguez, a Denver resident and food service worker at Denver’s North High School who believes the DPS bilingual program was in desperate need of an overhaul.
“My son was getting confused between Spanish and English to the point he was making up his own words,” Dominguez said.
So she took her son, Martin, out of the bilingual program at Valdez Elementary School and demanded that he be put in English classes.
“If you’re going to be in this country,” Dominguez said, “you have to be well versed in English. It’s as simple as that.”
Denver school board member Rita Montero, herself a Hispanic activist during the 1960s and 1970s, believes in the DPS bilingual plan. She is frustrated by others who have criticized it without giving it a chance.
The vocal minority, Montero said, is setting the agenda for the entire Hispanic community.
“I ran for the school board because I was sick of them saying that they spoke out for us as parents,” Montero said. “They didn’t and they still don’t. They have little connection to the community.”
Still, critics of the new DPS program say they will be monitoring the program when it is fully implemented in the upcoming school year.
“I really want to see what the district does rather than says,” said David Portillo, director of Padres Unidos.
But Moskowitz says most people will endorse the new program once they see it in action.
“The criticism from particular people will continue to come,” Moskowitz said. “But if you closely examine our program, you will see that it is moving in the right direction for the children.”