Almost two years after Denver Public Schools introduced a plan to assimilate students who don’t speak English, there’s widespread agreement that the program needs improvement.

On Thursday a small group of protesters led by English-first activist and former school board member Rita Montero gathered at the federal courthouse to file complaints that some students who can function in English are in Spanish classes – even though their parents want them moved.

Denver’s English Language Acquisition plan was created in the settlement of a 1995 civil-rights lawsuit against DPS alleging the district had no consistent policy on mainstreaming non-English-speaking students.

But it is inconsistently applied, according to Ernest F. House, the University of Colorado-Boulder education professor who is monitoring it for three years for federal Judge Richard P. Matsch. Those who favor immediately immersing Spanish speakers in English classes say DPS keeps some children in classes conducted in Spanish against their parents’ wishes. Meanwhile, those who favor a gradual approach to mainstreaming kids complain the plan pushes some into English classes before they’re ready.

“Our commitment is to try to provide parents the options that they want,” responded Wayne Eckerling, assistant superintendent for educational services. “If parents want English only, then we’re willing to do that. If they want native language then we’re happy to provide that.”

Still, the program has problems, according to House’s latest report to Matsch, in December. “Of the 15 schools visited this fall, eight have the program elements in place, four schools are marginal, which means they have significant problems, and three schools fall far short,” he wrote.

He said in some cases students are assigned to English-speaking classes because the native language classes already have so many students. Appropriate tests are not always administered soon enough to guide placement. And sometimes students with adequate test scores are not removed from the program.

At least five schools had “significant numbers of misplaced students,” House wrote.

Also, “teacher qualification varies greatly from school to school,” House wrote. Overall, only 61 percent of the teachers are “fully qualified,” he wrote.

Schools in mainly Hispanic neighborhoods tend to do a better job than those in mainly Anglo neighborhoods that have a small but growing Spanish-speaking population, House wrote.

Eckerling attributed the inconsistencies to the district’s reliance on individual schools.

“That’s the challenge always for the district – it’s a site-based system,” Eckerling said.

Guadalupe Martinez said she wants her 8-year-old son to be educated in English “because he was born in the United States, and just because he’s Hispanic doesn’t mean he should be in a class for Hispanics. I can teach him Spanish.”

But the boy is in a Spanish class at Greenlee Elementary and she can’t get him transferred, Martinez complained. She said he has always spoken English with his siblings but his English reading skills are deteriorating.

Eckerling said he was not familiar with individual cases, but said the district is committed to putting students in programs their parents want.

Proponents of bilingual education, meanwhile, say DPS is correct to teach Spanish-speaking students academic subjects in Spanish while they learn English.

“To use the native language is very appropriate and very effective,” said Silvana Carlos, president of Colorado Association for Bilingual Education.

House will report to Matsch through the next school year. Then Matsch is to rule on whether the program is satisfactory. Thursday’s complaints will be among the factors Matsch considers.

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