Its school buildings have been routinely used as backdrops for Amendment 31 press conferences. Its school board members drew an audience of hundreds as they discussed Amendment 31 – which they ultimately opposed.
Denver Public Schools is at the eye of the storm that swirls around Amendment 31 – the ballot initiative that aims to move English learners out of bilingual education and into mainstream classes after about a year of intensive English instruction.
Denver is where the amendment’s chief proponent, Rita Montero, first grew disenchanted with bilingual education when her son experienced it firsthand at a Denver school.
Denver is also where the state’s largest school population of English learners lives – 18,000. A total of 7,600 are instructed in the state’s largest program using Spanish language instruction – an educational approach the amendment would severely limit.
Yet Denver is also the school district least likely to be affected if Colorado voters approve Amendment 31 on Nov. 5. That’s because its system of educating English learners has been under the thumb of a federal court order since 1984. The court order is expected to end eventually, but for now it takes precedence over an amendment to the state constitution, said DPS general counsel Mary Ellen McEldowney.
If Amendment 31 passes, Montero says, she will ask the court to release DPS from its order, requiring the district to follow state law.
It’s unlikely she’ll succeed, said Peter Roos, an attorney for the plaintiffs, who include the Congress of Hispanic Educators and other individuals.
Roos said he believes the court order will last years longer.
He noted that Montero has already tried once to intervene in the case and failed.
In 1993, Montero filed a motion to intervene because her experience with her son led her to believe that educators failed to represent the true interests of English learners.
Her motion was denied.
So she ran for the school board, first unsuccessfully, then successfully.
Then, she spent 1 ? years negotiating the current version of the court order.
Under the old order, it was unclear whether the goal was to quickly transition from Spanish to English, said Wayne Eckerling, the DPS assistant superintendent who oversees English learners’ education.
ELA program created
Under the order Montero helped negotiate, a program called “English Language Acquisition” or ELA was born.
In ELA, students start out in all-Spanish classes.
They progress to special English classes tailored to students new to the language. DPS says 58 percent of current ELA students have already moved to these English classes.
Montero disputes these figures. She says there are entire Denver schools where little English gets taught. Valdez Elementary in northwest Denver is the example she uses during forums and debates. Last year, only 3.4 percent of Valdez students were deemed proficient enough at English to exit ELA, compared with a districtwide elementary average of 10 percent. The rest remained in Spanish classes or in special English classes.
Montero says Valdez principal Tom Archuleta has publicly stated that English is not taught in his school.
Nonsense, says Archuleta.
He says the low exit rate can be explained by the 125 percent mobility rate.
“It’s hard to teach them English if they’re in Mexico,” he said.
In an ideal world where children stay put instead of moving back and forth from Mexico, third grade is the year students transition to all-English. On a recent morning, one group of Valdez third-graders read a science book in Spanish. Another gathered around a poster-sized science textbook written in English.
“All living things need food and water and what else?” teacher Kathryn Jessen asked. “In Espanol, that word is ‘refugio.’ Shelter.”
Several children read fluently out loud from the book, which was written at a second-grade level. Archuleta says he expects these children to be at third-grade level by the end of the year. In English.
ELA gives students three years to make it from Spanish to special English classes before entering the mainstream.
DPS says fewer than 500 students districtwide have dallied longer than three years in Spanish. However, a much larger, unknown number of students have remained in ELA’s special English classes longer than three years.
ELA English classes are nearly identical to special English classes required under Amendment 31, but students generally would stay in the class for only a year under the initiative instead of three.
In California, where voters passed a similar initiative in 1998, most schools have ignored the time limit, taking more than a year to exit about 60 percent of English learners.
In Denver, only 11.2 percent of ELA students exited into the mainstream in 2001, down from 12 percent the previous year. This low annual rate suggests Denver, too, is ignoring time limits, though the district is unsure how many students still in ELA are new to the district and how many are lingering too long in ELA classes.
Not abiding by court order
When ELA was approved in 1999, Montero described it as “a huge step.”
Three years later, she says it was badly implemented from the start.
Her beliefs are bolstered by the reports of Ernest House, a University of Colorado professor and independent monitor appointed by the court in 1999 to a three-year term.
In the final report of his official term – which has been informally extended until next June – House described visits to 67 ELA schools. More than a quarter had failed to carry out major elements of the revised court order. Nearly half of ELA English teachers and nearly a third of ELA Spanish teachers were unqualified to teach ELA.
ELA’s impact on test scores is also unclear. Analyses show ELA students have made strides. But on the all-important Colorado Student Assessment Program exams, their gains have not kept pace with fluent speakers’ improvements, widening the gap between the two groups.
Eckerling acknowledges the sailing has not always been smooth.
“In the initial year of implementation we also were implementing a new database,” he said. “It made it really impossible to use data to help drive what was going on in schools. In the three years, we’ve had three superintendents. The fact is, these were unsettled times for people.”
Montero isn’t buying it.
“Regardless of what internal complications they had, they were bound by the court order,” she said.
DPS might not always have obeyed its federal order. But Montero thinks the district would follow Amendment 31. That’s because school officials found guilty of violating the law can be held personally liable and barred from working for the state’s government or schools for five years.
By contrast, Montero said, the district has never suffered any real penalties for violating the federal order.
Some of Montero’s biggest complaints about the court order center on parents like her – those who say their children were placed without permission in Spanish classes.
Parents like Patricia Ramirez.
Ramirez says her son was placed without her permission in a bilingual class last school year, even though he’s a native English speaker who doesn’t know Spanish.
“He has a native American name,” she said, “but because my last name was Ramirez they put him in bilingual.”
DPS spokesman Mark Stevens confirmed Ramirez’s son was placed in a Spanish class, but only for three days. The child is now in English classes.
The court order says parents get to choose how their children learn English.
Those who dislike ELA can request no services at all.
They can also request an “English as a Second Language” model where children receive extra help in mainstream classrooms.
Other than no services at all, this approach is the only one available to English learners who speak languages other than Spanish.
Most choose ELA
English as a Second Language differs from the separate, intensive English immersion classes outlined in Amendment 31.
But ESL has been allowed under similar initiatives in California and Arizona, even without waivers exempting kids from the initiative’s requirements.
Last year, about 1,500 parents representing 9.4 percent of English learners opted out of ELA, requesting ESL or no services at all. That’s up from 1.7 percent in 1999.
Still, the vast majority of Spanish speakers choose ELA.
Rishel Middle School teacher Andrew Dahl thinks ELA works well, especially when he compares it to the English immersion programs used in the 1970s to educate the neighborhood’s influx of Asian students.
“I remember how frustrated teachers were back then,” said Dahl, who’s worked for the district for 29 years. “We had no way to communicate with students effectively.
Now, when the kids get transitioned off the bilingual team, they come with enough command of the language to do well.”
Dahl’s southwest Denver school is the one Eckerling named when asked to provide an example of a school that is following the court order.
Like all DPS secondary schools, Rishel does not teach English learners about Spanish grammar or literature. Instead, everyone has a 90-minute literacy class in English. Of 250 English learners, only 99 take classes such as math and science in Spanish.
Nearly a third of the school’s students exited ELA two years ago.
But last year, the figure was only 14 percent.
Rishel eighth-grader Jorge Lopez says he has attended Denver public schools since age 5. At age 13, he is still enrolled in ELA’s sheltered English classes.
These classes are too easy for a student who already knows the language. For instance, in a recent ELA class consisting mainly of eighth- graders, Rishel students were learning to conjugate the verb “to be” using sentences from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which is written for third- graders.
Jorge is unsure why he remains in the classes.
“Maybe I’m not that good in English,” he said. “But I like to write English and read English.”
Rishel principal Sandra Just says Jorge will move into the mainstream by next semester. He stayed in ELA for more than three years because his standardized test scores were too low, even though he speaks English well.
It’s possible to exit ELA without the required test scores, but it requires time-consuming documentation.
Lingering in ELA English
While it’s rare for students to loiter in ELA Spanish classes, DPS officials say it’s relatively common to linger in ELA English.
Montero says that four years after her son wrongly spent a month in a bilingual class, she got a letter from DPS saying he had been reclassified as fluent in English.
“The conclusion we’ve come to is they continue to get state and federal dollars,” she said. “My kid continued to finance bilingual education.”
But Rishel administrators say it’s not greed that keeps kids in ELA. It’s a combination of low test scores, parents’ requests and kids who want to stay with their friends.
Despite last year’s low exit rate, several Rishel teachers said ELA had improved dramatically at their school since Just became principal three years ago.
But it is also true that Rishel was an “unsatisfactory” school last year, meaning it had some of the lowest test scores in the state in 2001. And teachers say ELA shoulders at least some blame.
ELA English teacher Sally Bishop says last year was the first time in six years that she had books for all her students.
“I had to beg, literally, to get any kind of curriculum from downtown,” she said. “Now, there’s a really explicit curriculum.”
ELA science teacher John Najmulski says the books he uses to teach life science and ecology are more in-depth than the English texts.
However, lab experiments must still be translated from English to Spanish. Though he teaches in Spanish, he hasn’t yet passed the writing and comprehension sections of DPS’s Spanish proficiency exam. To correctly translate the labs, he needs help from other Spanish-speaking teachers.
Despite the problems, teachers are not calling for an end to ELA.
“It hasn’t been an ideal system,” Bishop said. “It’s still being perfected. But it’s so much better.”
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