A modest collection of parents and children in northeast Denver is teaching Colorado how to conquer a huge education barrier for Spanish-speaking families.

The youngsters learn English during the school day, most on a steady pace to read, write and understand the dominant language.

Then after school their parents sit in the same short-legged chairs, also to learn English – the first formal instruction for most of them.

The new project at Mitchell Elementary School is the state’s most ambitious to bridge the language gap between non-English-speaking parents and children.

The goal is for parents to understand the language well enough to improve their lives and help their children in school – a crucial element for higher achievement in Denver Public Schools where nearly half the Hispanic students fail to graduate.

”It’s a way to get to the child,” said David Pimentel, director of migrant education for the state Department of Education. ”We hope it can be used as model throughout the state in parent involvement and bilingual education.”

Pimentel’s division gave Mitchell a $ 15,000 grant for the experiment because 70 percent of its 550 students are Hispanic, many recent immigrants from Mexico. Pimentel hopes to keep the grant money flowing for several years.

The school also agressively pursues reform. It’s the only school in the state with single-sex classes for fourth- and fifth-graders. It is also one of a few with four extra weeks of classes each year.

A key element to the program is familiarity and the security it breeds. Parents enroll because they are comfortable in their neighborhood school. They are taught by their children’s teachers, which fosters more connection with homes. They learn much of what their children learn in much the same ways.

Classes also are offered in citizenship, computers, parenting and how to help children in school. Eighty-five parents take one of the classes that began a month ago. English is the most popular with 58 adults. Enrollment edges up daily by word of mouth.

The language barrier inhibits communication and keeps many parents away from school. That hampers their ability to help their children. The young project may break down that obstacle.

”It seems like they can’t get enough,” said Lorena Jaramillo who teaches an English class. ”Some are coming three times a week.”

”Parent involvement is not hard if you offer what they want and need,” principal Lynn Spampinato said. Ana Barajas gets that in four English classes a week. Barajas, 33, picked up some speech skills as a housecleaner. Her children, ages 6, 5 and 2, know lots more. She said she is determined to catch up.

”That’s why she came,” an interpreter said. ”They correct her. She knows she uses the wrong words.”

Children push Barajas and other parents. They urge them to speak English in everyday conversations and turn off the Spanish TV channels.

”They say come watch it in English. You can’t learn it if you only hear Spanish,” Emma Silva said.

Jesse Chavez said she is proud of her mom, Rosario Pedrosa.

”She says: ‘No, Mom, answer in English. You can speak English,’ ” Pedrosa said.

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