A national organization launched a $500,000 campaign Thursday to strictly control how Colorado schools teach non-English speakers the language.
One Nation Indivisible, led by former Reagan appointee Linda Chavez, wants Colorado voters to pass an initiative in November that would force students who don’t speak English into one-year “English immersion” classes in which their native languages would be spoken sparingly.
After a year, most children would join mainstream classes, two to four years sooner than most bilingual students now do.
If the measure passes, Colorado would be the second state with such a tough approach to English language instruction. California enacted a similar law in 1998.
“English proficiency is the key to why our children are not succeeding in school,” said Chavez, who was joined at a news conference Thursday by a dozen Denver Hispanics.
Nine of 10 of the 50,000 bilingual students in Colorado speak Spanish, and they are being treated as mentally inferior by schools that keep them linguistically segregated for up to seven years, Chavez said.
The initiative’s goal is simple, supporters say: The faster students learn English, the faster they assimilate into the dominant culture.
“We need to give our kids a fair chance to achieve the American dream,” said Ada Diaz Kirby, a Denver businesswoman who was forced to learn English as a child in the 1960s without any reliance on Spanish.
“It was tough,” she said, “but by the end of the first year, I was getting A’s and B’s.”
Formal opposition to the proposal is building. Educators are calling it an infringement on local control. It is unnecessary, they say, because school districts are moving away from long-term bilingual instruction, common through the 1980s and ’90s.
Denver Public Schools has one of the strongest arguments against a statewide plan. The district has the state’s largest population of limited English speakers – nearly 17,000, more than 93 percent of whom speak Spanish.
DPS is in the first year of a federal court-sanctioned plan to move students to mainstream classes within three years.
Give it time to work, officials say.
“Denver has done a very thoughtful process to come up with an English acquisition program based on research on how kids learn,” school board President Elaine Berman said. “It’s up to each community to determine what they feel makes sense for their students.”
Chavez said her group has not studied bilingual programs in Colorado to see if they are deficient. She said her group was denied access to Denver schools to judge instruction.
School board member Lucia Guzman said that probably was because of the political nature of Chavez’s group, which promotes itself as “uniquely positioned to counter the divisive impact of race-conscious public policies.”
Guzman, who represents northwest Denver, which is heavily Hispanic, called the initiative “mean-spirited because it’s not what’s best for the whole child.”
Chavez conceded that a child’s educational success can be hindered by the low-income conditions that plague many Hispanic immigrants.
“This is not a panacea,” she said.
But she said districts lack money for elaborate bilingual education for Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Cambodian children. As a result, they learn English quickly. Hispanics should be expected to do the same, she said.
In California, the success of English immersion is debatable. Test scores after one year continued to show a big achievement gap between limited-
English students and others. Scores rose slightly for limited-English students, but those gains were comparable to those of English speakers.
Highlights of the proposed “Colorado English for the Children” initiative
* Public schoolchildren shall be taught “English as rapidly and effectively as possible.”
* Students would be taught in a “structured English-immersion” program that teaches subjects in English “at a level appropriate to the English proficiency of the class of English learners.”
* That program would be a “temporary transition” of one year to acquire a ”
working knowledge of English.”
* Parents could get a waiver to have children taught in a bilingual class.
No school may be required to provide a bilingual program.
* Parents may sue if they believe their child is not receiving English-