Language Barrier

Denver Public Schools' bilingual-education policy is open to interpretation.

Anyone who knows Rita Montero and Joseph C’de Baca knows they’re persistent. Some might describe them in less diplomatic terms: arrogant, in-your-face, sharp-tongued, downright troublesome.

Whatever their adversaries’ adjective of choice, it would be hard to argue that Montero and C’de Baca are driven by anything but a passion for kids in the Denver Public School District and a desire for those children to get the best possible education. That’s why they’re not afraid to take unpopular stands when they don’t agree with the way students — particularly Hispanic students — are being taught.

Montero, the former Denver Board of Education member who was often at odds with her northwest Denver constituency over how to educate Spanish-speaking students, and C’de Baca, a former DPS teacher who confronted just about everyone — teachers, administrators, school-board members, even students (“Zero for Conduct,” April 23, 1998) — over the same confounding issue, are back. Only this time, they’re fighting the system together.

In the last three years, DPS has followed a nationwide trend of moving away from bilingual education: California outlawed it in 1998, and in November, Arizona voters will decide on a measure to severely limit bilingual instruction. Montero and C’de Baca say the DPS regressed this year, however, when it applied for a $3.3 million U.S. Department of Education grant that will provide students with more bilingual instruction and additional training for bilingual teachers. Not only do they believe that prolonged native-language instruction will harm kids — they’ll turn out “bi-illiterate” instead of bilingual, C’de Baca quips — but they also believe that the grant flies in the face of the district’s current court-ordered plan for educating non-English-speaking kids.

They’re now asking lawyers to read through the grant proposal in search of something that reveals its incompatibility with the district’s plan, and C’de Baca says he and Montero want to file an injunction to make sure the grant program gets put on hold until the legal issues are sorted out.

Montero and C’de Baca also suspect that something other than philosophy is behind the grant — something green.

“Bilingual education has always been a cash cow,” C’de Baca says. “These programs take on a life of their own, and as long as bilingual programs are perpetuated, there will need to be more money for more bilingual teachers, more training and a bureaucracy to support it.”

The five-year grant asks DPS to give $1 million in in-kind contributions for office space and teacher salaries; the federal money covers operational costs. A full-time program director will get a $66,000 salary the first year; by the end of the five years, that person will be earning $75,737. Over the life of the grant, the director will also get more than $85,000 in fringe benefits, including health, dental and life insurance.

In addition, ten teachers and program staff members will attend the National Association of Bilingual Educators conference — the next two are in Phoenix and Houston — at a cost of $10,000 per year. During the first year of the program, $104,400 will pay for forty bilingual teachers to study in Mexico for a week (that covers tuition and room and board; teachers will have to pay their own airfare). The rest of the grant money will cover the salaries and benefits of other staff members as well as the cost of office supplies and instructional materials.

The program won’t begin until 2001, and the details — such as the number of additional instruction hours and how and when they will be delivered — will be worked out this year. Initially, the extra bilingual education will be offered only at four pilot schools; in later years, it could be expanded to four more. No school will be forced to participate, nor will it be mandatory for any student to receive the additional instruction; in fact, schools that want more bilingual education will have to apply to be a part of the program. At the end of the five years, DPS can choose whether to keep the program — and assume its costs — or end it.

School-board member James Mejia is excited about the grant program. “Here we have an opportunity to work with a community that has been disengaged from the district for a long time. The direction we’re headed in now is to provide more options for teachers, parents and students in the district, and this grant will be an additional option. Unless people are in favor of limiting options, I don’t see how it could be harmful. It’s just a way to reach more kids.”

In March, then-superintendent Chip Zullinger worked with the Latino/Latina Research & Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Denver and the BUENO Center at CU-Boulder to draft the grant proposal. Zullinger then sent the grant application off to the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C., without telling school-board members. When he finally did tell the board a couple of weeks later, they were outraged. Not only had Zullinger applied for federal funds behind their backs, but boardmembers worried that accepting the grant might be illegal. (Zullinger was fired in May because he made a habit of going above his bosses’ heads).

The grant proposal originally called for a “late-exit” bilingual program in which kids would stay in bilingual classes for five years. That’s where the biggest problem rested, because the district had wrangled with the U.S. Department of Justice since 1997 to come up with an acceptable plan for educating non-English-speaking students that allowed for only three years of bilingual instruction.

(The Justice Department became involved after the Denver parent group Padres Unidos filed a civil-rights complaint based on concerns about the way Spanish-speaking students were being educated here; many were being placed in special-education classes instead of bilingual classes.)

The plan that the district and the Justice Department came up with, the English Language Acquisition program, calls for only three years of bilingual instruction before transition into English-speaking classrooms. It was a huge move away from what the district had previously offered; before 1997, there was no limit on the amount of time students could receive instruction in their native language.

Montero made several trips to Washington, D.C., to defend the district’s plan. In February 1999, the Justice Department agreed to the ELA program as long as bilingual teachers receive at least 150 hours of training. Montero had a personal interest in seeing to it that kids weren’t “trapped” in bilingual classes any longer than necessary. She didn’t like how her son was faring in bilingual classes in northwest Denver’s Columbian Elementary School a few years ago, so she pulled him out and enrolled him in Traylor Elementary in southwest Denver.

Montero got what she wanted with the district’s new plan, but she also gained a lot of enemies. Critics felt that the ELA program meant the end of bilingual education. Spanish-speaking students, they claimed, would not be able to survive under these conditions, and they wouldn’t be able to retain their native language if they were ushered into English-only classes too soon. Montero’s role in the district’s bilingual-education reform and her opposition to a new Spanish/English school in northwest Denver (“School Pride,” September 30, 1999) eventually cost her her seat on the school board.

Even though Montero no longer had any authority to do anything about the grant, she quickly found a way to combat it. At first she wasn’t alone in her worries; school-board members also wondered whether the extended bilingual program would violate the court-ordered ELA program, so they didn’t vote on it right away. But in May, four of the seven school-board members approved the grant with several conditions, including that it only provide “Spanish language literacy development” beyond the three years as “a n optional educational enrichment activity” and that the training provided for in the grant not be a replacement for the training teachers are required to receive by the district’s Department of English Language Acquisition.

At around the same time, One Nation Indivisible, a Washington, D.C.-based education reform group, showed up in Colorado. The organization, which was behind California’s successful English-only initiative, announced that it would bring a similar measure to the state. The Colorado initiative called for an English-immersion program designed to transition kids into English-speaking classes as quickly as possible; students would receive only one year of bilingual instruction unless parents provided written notice permitting otherwise.

Although Montero didn’t fully embrace the idea of a one-year transition program, she supported the measure. “You can’t compete in this country if you can’t speak English,” Montero says. “I got involved with the initiative because with the grant, they’re unraveling all the work we did in the last three years.”

Almost as soon as petitions began circulating for the initiative, a group formed to denounce it. Kathy Escamilla, an associate professor of education at CU-Boulder and an associate with the BUENO Center, which was a co-applicant for the grant, helped form Common Sense Colorado. Attorneys for the group read through the ballot language carefully and, noting potential problems with the way it was worded, brought it to the attention of the Colorado Supreme Court. The high court agreed that some of the language was misleading — the justices said it gave parents the false impression that they would be able to choose between one-year English-immersion classes and bilingual classes — and removed it from the November ballot. One Nation Indivisible plans to amend the wording and return with another initiative in 2002.

Escamilla suspects that sour grapes are behind Montero’s resistance to the grant proposal. “It’s like, ‘Let’s see how many negative things we can bring up because we lost,'” Escamilla says, referring to Montero’s loss on the ballot initiative and her defeat in the school-board race.

“The grant was never really out of compliance with the court order. The court order was presented as a minimum set of standards that says, ‘Everyone has to do at least this.’ The grant was intended to do that and even more,” says Escamilla. “The grant is not an attempt to not teach kids English; it’s an enhancement, a way of providing more bilingual instruction and more teacher training. It just provides more resources. What school couldn’t use extra books?”

Sharon Macdonald, one of the boardmembers who voted against the grant (Bennie Milliner and Sue Edwards were the others), doesn’t buy that argument, however. If it does the same thing but just provides more teacher training and a little extra instruction, she wonders, what’s the point? “It’s not consistent with the ELA program we have in the district, and it’s going to cost us $1 million. Those are resources that are precious. We do a lot of bilingual teacher training already. I don’t know that trips to Mexico are necessary,” she says. “The point, really, is that the grant focuses on bilingual education as opposed to English acquisition, and that takes us a step backward.”

Some school officials say the legal questions raised by the grant haven’t been resolved and that more will likely surface as the program gets under way. School-board members plan to discuss the grant further on August 17.

C’de Baca will return to DPS this fall after a yearlong leave of absence, although he doesn’t know yet which school he’ll be assigned to. During his break from teaching, he’s been running Hispanic Education Incorporated, a nonprofit organization that offers teacher training on Hispanic culture, history and social issues.

He intends to write letters to school-board members to persuade them to reconsider the grant program; if the bilingual program is implemented as planned, however, “we’ll continue monitoring the district and keeping an eye on the Chicanistas over there,” he says, using his favorite term for liberal Hispanics who support bilingual education.

“They just want to save everyone from struggling. Learning English is frustrating and confusing, but dealing with frustration and confusion is what life is all about; it makes you stronger.”

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