Faced with sharp criticism from Hispanic groups and rejection by the U.S. Department of Education, Denver Public Schools officials are standing pat on their revised bilingual education program.

They are doing this based on their strong conviction that the new plan will yield the language grasp these bilingual students need, and we believe that conviction deserves support.

Acknowledging previous flaws in the program, school officials redesigned it with the goal of making some 13,000 Spanish-speaking Denver students readers and writers of English in three school years, then easing them into the school mainstream. The plan includes provisions for close monitoring of students’ needs as they enter the program and their achievements as they prepare to leave it. Students who need more than three years will get it, and those who succeed earlier will be moved ahead faster. In addition, we believe, the plan should include equally strong provisions for continued evaluation of students’ progress after they exit the bilingual classroom.

The rift with the federal education department’s Office of Civil Rights revolves around its requirement that exiting students must perform at the 30th percentile of students nationally. DPS Superintendent Irv Moskowitz says such numbers mean little in individual evaluations, so the new Denver bilingual plan ignores the 30 percentile rule and concentrates on teacher-administrator-specialist teams for measuring each student’s progress.

The criticisms by a coalition of Hispanic parents and community groups are harder to address and have been aired since 1984, when a lawsuit brought by the Congress of Hispanic Educators put bilingual education under the jurisdiction of U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch.

While not all these groups agree, a widely shared complaint is that the bilingual programs don’t address students’ educational needs beyond language proficiency and don’t give them enough cultural nourishment. Another is that many of the program’s teachers are unqualified or underqualified, and this condition continues despite the district’s constant search for qualified bilingual teachers.

If the Denver plan now in the hands of the Office of Civil Rights doesn’t pass federal muster, the school district could lose $ 30 million in federal school aid, which is a hefty sum considering the district’s total budget last year was $ 379 million.

The district is aware that the stakes are high. It is unlikely, however, that the federal agency would take such a punitive tack without putting Denver’s bilingual plan before Matsch’s court, which has the final say-so on whether Denver is fulfilling its obligation to educate all of its children.

From the resolve it has shown in facing its critics so far, it seems clear that the district is willing to submit its bilingual plan to that scrutiny.

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