Bilingual woes
Immigrant program still mired in doubt

Denver Rocky Mountain News
Sunday, January 6, 2002

THE ISSUE: A critical English acquisition program
OUR VIEW: Public can't tell if it's working

The Denver school district gets scads of data about its students who are learning English, in twice-yearly reports required by the district's English Language Acquisition Program. Yet for all the charts and tables and appendices, the most recent report ultimately fails to answer the only important question: Is the program working?

In the past three years, the number of students whose English improved sufficiently for them to join mainstream classes in English has increased substantially -- from 1,484 in 1998-1999, to 1,706 in 1999-2000 and to 2,012 in 2000-2001. That's encouraging. But because the number of students eligible for the program also increased rapidly, the percentage of students exiting is still low -- 12.2 percent last year. That's discouraging.

The aim of the program is to get students ready for classes in English within three years. Is that happening? We can't tell.

"What we need to know is the number of students who have been in ELA three years and what percentage are exiting," said board member Sue Edwards when the report was presented Dec. 6. "These numbers include new enrollees and other kinds of information."

Parents can decline to have their children participate, and the number who do has climbed steeply -- from 1.7 percent three years ago to 9.4 percent last year. It would be nice to know, would it not, how those children fare in regular classes compared with children of similar English proficiency who do enter the program. But we can't tell.

Perhaps it's only the children who are relatively proficient already who are opting out. We can't tell.

There are wide variations from school to school in how many parents opt out, suggesting that something in the school climate may influence that decision. What is it? And should it be district policy to minimize the differences?

There are wide variations, also, in the percentage of children at different schools qualifying to leave the program. Very likely that is at least to some extent because some schools have many more children with very low levels of proficiency than others. But is that the whole story? We can't tell.

Students with very weak English skills normally start out with instruction largely in Spanish, and progress to classes with more English as their skills improve. So how many students at the lowest level move to a higher level after one year in the program, or two? We can't tell.

Most of the children in the ELA program, nearly 15,000, are Spanish speakers. Roughly a tenth as many speak other languages. For the most part speakers of other languages don't get native-language instruction. How do exit rates compare? We can't tell.

No doubt the answers to some of these interesting and important questions could be dredged out of the district's databases, if board members were to ask for them. It's high time they did just that.