Four months ago, Maria Ramos celebrated the birth of her daughter Florencia. Tuesday, she celebrated the birth of what she hopes will be Florencia’s school, the public dual-language Montessori school slated to open in 2001-02 at West 36th Avenue and Zuni Street, once the site of a Catholic school.
Ramos was among the parents and community leaders who attended a ceremonial groundbreaking Tuesday for the still-unnamed school, which has figured into some of Denver’s fiercest educational controversies since it was first proposed in 1998 and likely will do so for years to come.
The school is one of nine – perhaps 10, if tight money management pays off – funded by a $ 305 million bond issue. Its original purpose was to relieve crowding in the densely populated neighborhood’s existing schools. Ramos served on a parents advisory council throughout her pregnancy and threw her support behind the novel curriculum after visiting Denison Elementary, Denver’s only public Montessori school, and Bilingue Washington, a dual-language school in Boulder. The alternative for Florencia would be to attend Valdez Elementary.
‘From what I know, the test scores are very low. It doesn’t serve our children well,’ Ramos said in Spanish, her only language.
Ramos and others called the Montessori school the most concrete evidence in DPS history of a commitment to Hispanic children, who are a majority of the system’s approximately 70,000 students. But it also has been a lightning rod for the extremely strong feelings surrounding bilingual education.
The dual-language program means half the children will be native speakers of Spanish and half of English, and they will be gradually integrated. It will be the only school in DPS with the stated objective of making children literate in both languages.
In the rest of the city’s schools, bilingual education is guided by a federal court order that mainstreams non-English speakers into regular English classes within three years. The school board got around that contradiction by declaring the new school a magnet school rather than a neighborhood school with its own enrollment area, said board president Elaine Gantz Berman.
Another challenge comes from the state ballot initiative being readied by English-only activists. The proposal would limit bilingual education to one year, making the north Denver school’s curriculum illegal.
Councilwoman Debbie Ortega urged the crowd to fight the ballot initiative. ‘That would negate all the effort we have put forth in making this school a reality,’ she said.
Donna Lucero of the Northwest Coalition for Better Schools and Pam Martinez of Padres Unidos said they feared that DPS’ commitment to the school might flag following the departure of former Superintendent Chip Zullinger, who supported it. One of Zullinger’s strongest allies on the school board, the Rev. Lucia Guzman, won her seat in November largely because she liked the concept while incumbent Rita Montero didn’t.
‘We wouldn’t have this school if we didn’t get involved in a board election and if Chip Zullinger hadn’t been superintendent,’ Martinez said. But interim Superintendent Bernadette Seick and other DPS officials at the groundbreaking said they support it, too.
Another point of contention: Some local educators say the new school will damage the surrounding schools by poaching the area’s most affluent and education-oriented families.
‘It’s pretty obvious what it’ll do,’ said one principal, who asked not to be named. The principal also said the relatively unstructured Montessori program is the last thing many of the area’s children need since they come from homes with little structure.
Construction begins in a few days and should end four or five weeks before the opening of school in 2001, said Mike Langley, DPS facilities chief. The school will start by accepting children who are 3, 4 and 5 years old, and Ortega said applications are already coming in. Still to be decided are the school’s principal, top grade level, and how to recruit qualified teachers in a district already short of fully credentialed bilingual-education teachers.