DPS board upset over grant

Bilingual education at center of conflict with superintendent

Members of Denver’s school board blasted Superintendent Chip Zullinger Thursday for failing to consult them before agreeing to a grant proposal that they say would violate the court order governing the district’s bilingual-education program.

The proposal would lengthen the amount of time students can spend learning in their native tongue and would transfer some bilingual teacher training to Boulder.

‘I don’t like doing business like that,’ board member Bennie Milliner said.

The proposal, from the University of Colorado’s Latino/Latina Research & Policy Center, seeks $ 3.3 million from the federal government for teacher training.

Several aspects of it are so controversial that the board couldn’t even agree to vote on it Thursday, instead scheduling a special meeting for May 10.

The program would establish a ‘late exit’ English-acquisition program at eight schools, meaning instruction could continue in Spanish even after the students begin receiving instruction in English. The current court-supervised program, which started this school year, moves Spanish-speakers into mainstream classes after three years.

The program also would turn responsibility for teacher training over to the Bueno Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, which the court order does not allow for, according to Denver Public Schools attorney Michael Jackson.

‘In essence, we’re submitting an illegal grant proposal,’ said board member Sharon Macdonald. Board members were angriest about the fact that, going into Thursday night’s meeting, they had not had a chance to read the entire proposal, just an executive summary. Nor had district staffers whose job it is to review grant proposals and make recommendations to the board.

‘I find it hard to believe we are being asked to approve a document no one has reviewed,’ said board member Sue Edwards.

Coming to Zullinger’s defense was board member James Mejia, who said the superintendent deserves leeway in determining the district’s direction. The CU proposal would address Denver’s shortage of qualified bilingual-education teachers, and that goal is so worthy that the board shouldn’t let its displeasure with procedural matters get in the way of improving long-strained relations with the Latino community, Mejia said.

‘I’m inclined to support it,’ Mejia said. ‘It’s been a long time since we’ve been at the same table (with Latino activists), and I don’t want that energy and that momentum to go away.’

Estevan T. Flores, a political science professor and the Latino center’s director, said the CU team was under the impression that, in coordinating with Zullinger, it was following proper procedures. And he praised Zullinger for working with them at all.

‘For us, to want to start to work again with the DPS is no small thing,’ Flores said, referring to the history of rancor that led to a 1984 lawsuit by the Congress of Hispanic Educators. ‘We’re here in good faith to try and work with the district.’ And he said the lawyer for the Congress of Hispanic Educators has approved the plan.

Despite the controversy, Milliner was the only board member who said he would vote against the proposal on its merits, saying it sends a ‘schizophrenic’ message about the district’s approach to bilingual education. Several others said they would support it if it’s possible to modify it in ways that would protect the district from charges of violating the court order.

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