First-grade teacher Esther Ventura begins her lesson on a recent day by asking students in Spanish at Denver’s Valdez Elementary School to participate in an exercise about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
She tells them how King loved many people. Then she asks her students to name different words that also express love.
“Tienes la mano levantada,” Ventura says, pointing to a student who has his hand raised.
“Abrazar,” the student replies, saying the Spanish word for “hug.”
For the 20 or so first-graders in Ventura’s classroom, Spanish is spoken almost exclusively, about 90 percent of the time. It would be too difficult, school officials say, for them to learn English when they can’t even read in their native language.
But as they develop their literacy skills in Spanish, the students will get more and more of their instruction in English. By the time they reach the fourth grade, these students will be taught in English exclusively.
“Children are at different levels of language development to begin with,” said Jose Perea, director of the DPS bilingual education program. “We’re hoping that by providing different levels of instruction in Spanish and supplementing that with English, our students will be able to learn what they need to be successful.”
Welcome to Denver’s new bilingual education program. While the program isn’t scheduled to begin systemwide until this fall, Valdez has been a pilot school for the new curriculum.
After an initial period of instruction in Spanish, DPS moves students into “supported English content” classes, where a mix of Spanish and English is used. Children might read a story in Spanish, for instance, and then be asked to answer questions about it in Spanish and English.
Finally, students move into “transitional bilingual education,” in which lessons are given primarily in English. Difficult concepts still are taught in Spanish, however.
Valdez fifth-grader Elizabeth Ceballos, who has been in bilingual education since she moved to Denver from Zacatecas, Mexico, about three years ago, said she has made a lot of progress under the system.
“It was hard to learn English at first,” she said. “Now I can read and write in English.”
Much of the controversy surrounding the Denver bilingual plan has focused on the district’s goal of moving students into English-only classes within three years. But DPS officials stress their plan contains elements drawn from successful districts around the country.
One is the Ysleta school district in El Paso, Texas, which has seen dramatic improvements among its bilingual students. The centerpiece of the Ysleta bilingual program is extensive training for teachers and administrators, something DPS is adding under its new plan.
On state tests, Ysleta bilingual students consistently outdistance their English-speaking counterparts, said Lucille Housen, Ysleta bilingual education coordinator.
For example, 66 percent of the state’s third-graders passed the math test, compared with 83 percent of Ysleta third-graders in bilingual education who took the test in Spanish. Reading and writing results were similar.
Another model for DPS was the district in Calexico, Calif., a town of about 25,000 on the Mexican border. There, school officials targeted parental involvement as a way to boost student achievement.
Parents in Calexico are required to attend training sessions on topics such as developing literacy at home, gang prevention and teen pregnancy prevention. Those parents who do not participate in the training sessions are barred from graduation and promotion ceremonies.
“We didn’t try to deal with our students in the traditional ways,” Deputy Superintendent Emily Palacio said. “If you have a nontraditional population, you have to use nontraditional ways. We didn’t do PTAs. Those things just didn’t work with our parents.”
The results have been remarkable: About 80 percent of bilingual education students in Calexico who enter kindergarten are mainstreamed into English classes in the fourth grade. The school district has a low dropout rate, too – about 2.6 percent, compared with the California average for all students of more than 3 percent. And 60 to 90 percent of Calexico students go on to college or other post-secondary institutions.