Denver's bilingual program may get needed changes

From all indications, attorneys for the Denver school board and the Congress of Hispanic Educators, are making progress in their negotiations over a new, and less rigid bilingual program for the Denver Public Schools.

The best evidence of continuing progress is the fact that Monday both sides will ask U.S. District Court Judge Richard Matsch for additional time to work out a new policy that would replace a consent decree approved by the federal court in 1984.

It is widely acknowledged that several procedural aspects of the decree are clearly out of date and are simply not being enforced. Other provisions have produced problems of their own and prolonged the period of bilingual instruction for some students far beyond what either educators or students’ parents might like.

A Denver Post story two weeks ago outlined the startling fact that the mere elimination of a single testing rule would have the immediate effect of graduating perhaps as many as 4,000 of the 12,733 students currently in the program. Under current policy, an elementary bilingual student is retained in the program if he or she scores below the 30th percentile on standardized tests. The standard for high schoolers is 40th percentile. Superintendent Irv Moscowitz has pointed out the obvious fact that someone, by definition, will be below the 30th percentile level and that fact should not be the sole basis on which students can be consigned to remain in bilingual programs. Other and better methods exist, including consultation with parents, to determine when a student is able to handle regular classroom work.

Bilingual education has been, and perhaps always will be, a contentious educational issue. The Congress of Hispanic Educators has a clear organizational interest in seeing that the program is not scaled back quickly, but even the most ardent defenders of the program must admit that the 1984 decree cannot be an effective guide to the future. Thus it is encouraging that both sides believe enough progress has been made that they need not take the issue back into Matsch’s courtroom for resolution. It is also encouraging that the district has had positive reaction to the proposed reduction in the scope of the program.

There are those who might wish a complete abandonment of bilingual instruction, but they are not likely to get their wish. Those who seek to endlessly extend bilingual instruction are unlikely to be satisfied either.

What is clearly in the best interest of the Denver school district is something between the two extremes. We’d like to see a new and much more flexible policy that will allow students who are not proficient in English to receive instruction in their native languages or specialized instruction in English in a short-term, relatively intensive program designed to quickly get them into regular classes.

The prospect of that happening is now much brighter, thanks to the progress being made in the Matsch-ordered talks between the two parties.

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