Luz Muoz started her education in a Denver public school, then transferred as a middle- schooler to the private Escuela Tlatelolco because it had a strong bilingual program at a time when the public schools were under pressure – and a court order – to mainstream more students.
At 16, the college-bound senior is pleased with her skills in Spanish and English. “It’s a privilege to speak both languages,” she said.
And how did she become not just literate, but biliterate?
“We learned English in elementary school by teachers teaching us in Spanish how to speak English.”
Rita Montero doesn’t believe it. “I think bilingual education started off with good intentions but has turned into a monster that doesn’t succeed,” said the Denver public-school parent, former school board member and former pro-bilingual activist. That’s why she and California businessman Ron Unz wrote Amendment 31, the proposed ban on bilingual education in public schools that voters face in November.
Debate over the amendment has picked the scabs off decades-old hurts concerning the place of Spanish in schools and the status of Latinos in America.
It should never have come to this, says Nita Gonzales, the chief executive of Escuela Tlatelolco.
Gonzales calls Amendment 31 “inhumane.” But the public schools had it coming, she says. Denver would be a healthier city today – and Coloradans wouldn’t be considering amending their Constitution – if the public schools had done bilingual education properly from the start, she says.
“Where in the public schools will you find trained bilingual educators?” Gonzales said.
“We’re now 30 something years later. We do know what the best practices are. But knowing that and implementing it – that’s where we miss it.”
Across town, leaders at a multilingual private school that serves a more affluent crowd also say the public schools could have learned from them.
“I think if the public schools would come see what we do, they’d go, ‘Oh, we need to change the way we do this,”‘ said Karen Jefferson, the mother of two boys at Denver International School and head of the school’s parents council.
The two schools are very different. Denver International School, near Washington Park, was founded by French expats in 1977 and now serves many Anglo suburbanites from as far as Castle Rock.
Escuela Tlatelolco was founded after a 1969 walkout of Denver Public Schools and named for an Aztec center of learning. It retains a political tone: raised-fist “Chicano Power” posters and Che Guevarra portraits share the walls with macaroni collages.
But leaders at both schools agree that American children of all backgrounds need more languages, not fewer.
Amendment 31 would prohibit native-language support for most English-learners and replace it with a one-year immersion course. While proponents and opponents go back and forth over whether native-language support helps or hinders English acquisition, Denver International School headmaster Hank Tschopp says educators should focus on results and not get hung up on theories.
“A lot of the old pedagogical ideas are out the window,” he said.
Visiting relatives in Switzerland as a kid and meeting 4-year-old cousins who could speak four languages “taught me a little humility,” Tschopp said. “They didn’t bother about, should we do it at age 4 or 5 or 6 or whatever.”
The only theory of language acquisition at Aunt Heidi and Uncle Fritz’s house, he said, was: “Let’s do it.”
Denver International School’s approach has some things in common with traditional bilingual education and some in common with Amendment 31-style immersion.
English-speaking children are taught entirely in their second language – French, German or Spanish – in preschool and kindergarten. Then English is gradually introduced.
“When I get them, they’re fluent in the two languages,” said Sue Coombs, an English teacher for fifth- and sixth-graders.
Students in the French section outscore 90 percent of American students on Iowa exams and two-thirds of French students on France’s tests. (The German and Spanish sections are too new to have a test-score track record.)
“I thought I was going to be left behind” in French kindergarten, said Holly Hernandez, 11. “It worked out great.”
Now the fifth-grader is taking Spanish as a third language.
Escuela Tlatelolco works the opposite way, starting children in their first language – Spanish for about half of the kids, English for the rest – and gradually introducing the second. Native-language support in the classroom isn’t as important for Denver International School’s students because their parents are more literate in English than Tlatelolco’s parents, Gonzales said.
Separated though they are by culture and money, parents at both schools express the same belief that multilingualism will help their kids succeed.
“Right now in the U.S. if you speak two languages you have a better chance to get a better job,” said Maria DeLeon, whose 11-year-old daughter, Giovanny, a Tlatelolco student, wants to be a doctor.
DeLeon took Giovanny out of the public schools because “she would have lost her Spanish.”
Keeping Spanish doesn’t mean giving up English, Gonzales says. “I don’t have one parent who doesn’t come in here and say, ‘OK, Nita, when is my child going to be reading and writing English?”‘ she said. “They want better for their children.”
Tlatelolco’s retention rate is 93 percent, she said, while public Denver high schools lose nearly half of their Latinos before graduation. Seventy percent of her school’s graduates go to college, and their average ACT score of 22 is better than the state average of 20.1.
Denver International School’s Jefferson said her 9-year-old speaks French in his sleep and her 5-year-old is teaching her Spanish.
“It’s amazing to me that I don’t speak these languages at home, yet my kids just absorb them,” she said.
There are a few public schools in Colorado that use a dual-language approach, and school boards are worried about whether they can keep operating if Amendment 31 passes. Larry Slocum, principal of Harris Bilingual Immersion School in Fort Collins, said the Poudre school board has just begun to think that through.
Unz said he realizes dual-immersion public schools are popular with Anglo parents. Amendment 31 would not affect their children, he said.
However, the amendment intentionally raises hurdles to placing English-learners in such programs, he said.
“Anybody who wants to teach them English in a program where they’re spending 95 percent of the day in Spanish classes has to provide an awful lot of evidence that that would work, or they can get sued,” Unz said.