English Gets New Emphasis In DPS

Pupils are expected to be in mainstream within three-year span

One language rules in Denver Public Schools: English. Doubt it?

There is no bilingual department. There is the English Language Acquistion program. The district changed the name two years ago to stress a new mission. Students would learn English, not two languages at once. The issue is one of the most critical for DPS. More than 20 percent of its students – 14,000 – have limited English ability; 90 percent of those speak Spanish. The number is expected to keep growing as immigration from Mexico continues. Most Spanish-speaking parents want their children to learn English, said Jose Perea, director of the program. But they worry children may lose their culture without Spanish instruction. The U.S. Department of Education also opposes the new focus. It claims the district discriminates against non-English-speaking minority and immigrant children by giving them a substandard education. The district and the U.S. Justice Department have been seeking a compromise for over a year. ”We’re close to an agreement,” Perea said. ”We’re very optimistic we’ll have one within the next few months.” A change was overdue for good academic reasons, Perea said. The old way did not work, officials reasoned. Many students were most comfortable with their native tongue. The mainstream classroom intimidated them. So they remained in bilingual classes their entire careers, becoming little more than elementary-school-literate in English. The district was graduating students who could barely function in the workaday world. Many Hispanics never even earn a diploma. Just over half of the Hispanic students, who make up half the district’s enrollment, graduate. By the end of 1997, only 500 students left the program for regular classrooms. The district plans to track progress more closely now by comparing tests results from the fall and spring, Perea said. The district now wants students in mainstream English-only classes in three years, when they’re merely conversant in English and competent in basic subjects in their native tongues. But they don’t have to go ”cold turkey.”

Along with math, science and social studies in their native language, bilingual students take English development classes and music, physical education and library with English speakers. It makes them more comfortable with the second language. Students are judged individually. Those who need to be phased into English instruction or who need other transition help are supposed to receive it. Most schools began the new approach last year. Some teachers object. They believe it takes five to seven years – not three – to master word usage, grammar and core subjects in a native tongue before learning those concepts in English. ”I can’t say that every principal and teacher is in agreement with our plan,” Perea said. He made the change two years ago as principal of Valdez Elementary. Third-graders began a transition and fourth- and fifth-graders got more subject instruction in English. ”They would work at an English level that was good for them and not become frustrated and want to return to Spanish,” Perea said. He questions the reluctance to move Spanish speakers to English faster. Children who speak Russian and Vietnamese, the two other most common languages in DPS, often do it in a year, he said. That is partly of necessity: There are few teachers who speak their language. ”I think it’s an expectation” of the family, Perea said. ”They’re going to move into the mainstream quicker.”

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