Saving a bilingual program

THE ISSUE: Proposed revamping of Denver bilingual program OUR VIEW: It's sound, thoughtful and overdue

This may be the only statistic you need to understand why an overhaul of the Denver Public Schools’ bilingual program is long overdue: ”Records indicate that, over a two-year period, 40 percent of students tested made no progress on a test of oral English proficiency.”

That’s a quotation from the district’s summary of its proposed reforms. Think of it: no progress over a two-year period for 40 percent of the students. If anything, unfortunately, the news gets worse. For example, parental permission is not now required before kids are slotted for limited- English classes. Even more peculiar is the fact that students whose first language is English are eligible just because family members speak another language.

Meanwhile, a surprisingly small number of limited English students qualify each year for mainstreaming – just 4.9 percent of non-English speakers in 1994-95, the district says.

To its credit, district officials have crafted a series of proposed reforms that stand a chance of making a difference. You can tell they’re serious by the way they began: They restated the program’s goal to eliminate previous ambiguity. In the future, no one will be able to argue that bilingual programs are meant as a cultural or language maintenance effort. The new goal is crystal
clear: ”for students to learn English using the most efficient and effective approaches so that they can be successful in the mainstream, English language instructional program.”

To that end, the district will enhance the quality of its staff training and try to move all Spanish-speaking students into ”sheltered English” or mainstream classes in three years or less, rather than at the more leisurely pace common today. After all, the longer it takes for youngsters to master the language of the regular classroom, the more likely it is they’ll find themselves well behind their contemporaries when they finally do make the switch.

School board members are naturally eager to hear the public response to the proposed changes. They are also a bit uneasy, given the historic sensitivities surrounding bilingual instruction. Yet our sense is that the larger public has caught on to the need for change, even if some activists have not. They claim that five to seven years is the minimum necessary for much success at teaching English. This is, to put the matter politely, implausible in the extreme.

The final hurdle, in any event, is the U.S. District Court, which must approve all bilingual reforms. Is Judge Richard Matsch prepared, like the school board, to admit that the old model no longer works? His rulings of the past couple of years suggest that the answer may be yes and that he, too, could embrace the changes.

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