Bilingual education in spotlight

Hispanic groups, DPS at odds over programs

The fliers, printed in English and Spanish, are stacked underneath a garden tool on an old wooden porch swing in North Denver. “The future of bilingual education and our children’s future is at stake,” they say. ” Let your voice be heard for the future of our children!”

This week, people have come throughout the day and night to Pam Martinez’s porch to pick the fliers up and distribute them to friends and neighbors. To Martinez and others like her, the fliers, which invite Denver Public Schools parents to a forum on bilingual education tomorrow, are the seeds of a movement to change the way Spanish-speaking children in Denver are taught.

But at least one DPS board member sees the meeting as a political attack that does not have the best interests of children at heart.

Beyond the broad ideological debate over bilingual education across the nation, the tension between DPS administrators and these Hispanic groups is about how to make a bilingual program work. And the meeting likely will incite more controversy over an issue that has been a thorny one in Denver for more than a decade: How should DPS teach children with limited or no English skills?

Bilingual education allows teachers to instruct Spanish-speaking children in Spanish while gradually building their English skills so that students can move to mainstream, English-only classes.

The forum advertised on the fliers is sponsored by five groups fed up with bilingual education in DPS schools. It will include presentations on national research on bilingual programs, the history of the DPS bilingual system and possible changes being considered by the board of education.

DPS Superintendent Irv Moskowitz said he and Board President Sue Edwards plan to attend the meeting to listen to people’s concerns, but he said they will not give speeches.

The DPS bilingual program has been under the jurisdiction of Chief U.S.
District Judge Richard Matsch since 1984 when Hispanic activists sued DPS,
claiming that students who did not speak English weren’t being served adequately by the district.

Before DPS can make any changes to its bilingual curriculum, the plaintiffs – the Congress of Hispanic Educators – must approve them. If the two sides don’t agree, Matsch will have to study their arguments and decide.

Many Hispanic activists have been skeptical of the district’s efforts and motives.

Late last year, DPS attorneys presented possible changes to the district’s bilingual program to attorneys for the Congress of Hispanic Educators. DPS will not comment publicly on the changes, saying they are a confidential part of a lawsuit.

But some activists who saw the proposal attacked some of the changes, saying DPS wanted to deprive Spanish-speaking preschoolers and kindergartners of any teaching in Spanish, that the plan allowed schools to choose not to have bilingual programs and that Spanish-speaking kids would be pushed into mainstream classrooms too soon.

“I see what they brought to the table in the context of an overall anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican climate that was spearheaded by the English-only legislation and has been followed up with Proposition 187 in California,” said Martinez, a member of Padres Unidos, a parent group sponsoring tomorrow’s meeting. “We’re seeing a nationwide dismantling of quality bilingual education programs, and I saw their (the district’s)
response in that context.”

That plan was just a draft for the negotiations and in no way was a final proposal, Superintendent Moskowitz said.

“There is nothing to criticize now because there is no plan presented to board,” Moskowitz said. ” You need to have a product, and the product is not here.”

Rita Montero, a DPS board member, said the groups behind tomorrow’s community meeting are spreading misinformation. Because the board has no final plan, any discussions of what may happen are premature and wrongheaded.

“All of the madness they took out to the community was just that – madness –
and it was their madness, no one else’s,” Montero said. “They used it for a political purpose.”

DPS plans to go public with a bilingual education proposal by mid-February and will invite community input then.

Martinez said she went to a December meeting sponsored by some of the same groups behind tomorrow’s forum.

“When they don’t like what you say, they start screaming and don’t want to have a dialogue,” she said. “You want to talk to people who are going to be rational.”

But Patricio Cordova, manager of the Hispanic Education Advisory Council,
said many Hispanics see the spiraling Hispanic drop-out rate as a crisis and feel that DPS isn’t taking concerns about bilingual education seriously.

“The meeting is not to spread misinformation,” Cordova said. “On the contrary, it’s to fully inform parents on what present practices are actually occurring and what the current research says. This is not political posturing.”

Montero, who transferred her son to a magnet school to get him out of a bilingual program, said that many of those advocating bilingual education don’t want students to transition into mainstream classes for seven years.
And that’s too long, she said.

“Many people have spent their whole school careers in the program and have graduated without being able to speak English,” she said.

One DPS bilingual teacher, who supports the groups hosting the forum, said there are DPS schools where “unqualified teachers” are not teaching Spanish-speaking children in their native language even though they are required to do so.

“If they’re quiet, they’re put in a seat in the back and given seat work,”
said the teacher, who asked to remain anonymous because she feared reprimand from DPS administrators.

“And when (they get to) high school, they can function orally but they can’t read and write in either language.”

The public forum on bilingual education will meet tomorrow from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Our Lady of Guadalupe parish hall, 1209 W. 36th Ave.

Patricia Callahan’s e-mail address is Pmcallahan@aol.com



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