Original URL: http://www.denverpost.com/Stories/0,1413,36~11583~1245501,00.html

Eagle Valley schools blend dual languages, cultures
Hispanic influx forces educators to adopt new tactics
Denver Post Mountain Bureau
March 16, 2003
By Steve Lipsher

EDWARDS - In the shadows of some of the state's glitziest ski resorts, far from the usual battlefronts over bilingual education, Florencia Covasanschi struggles to teach a classroom full of students who don't speak English.

"It's hard for me not to resort to Spanish," the Argentine teacher said at Edwards Elementary School. "It's hard for them not to beg me for a translation."

Stumped about whether the English word "dance" is a noun or a verb, a shy third-grader approaches her and asks in Spanish for help on her worksheet.

"Look at me," Covasanschi said, doing the twist.

"Bailar?" the girl asked, breaking into a wide smile.


Covasanschi has achieved a small victory - the understanding of a new word - in a class specifically  designed to teach immigrant children in English, rather than just teach them the language.

"I like enabling kids to work, to function in our society," she said.

Grappling with a massive influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants over the past decade, educators at the Eagle Valley School District increasingly have had to resort to innovative ways to teach a dramatically changing population in the "backyard" of the Vail and Beaver Creek ski resorts.

While the issues mirror those in Denver and many other districts around the state burgeoning with Hispanic immigrants, the impact in tiny Eagle Valley - with only 5,000 students - represents a sea change that can't be absorbed and hidden as it could in a larger community.

Districtwide, the percentage of Hispanics exploded from 23 percent in 1993 to 40 percent today - 1,948 students compared with 740 a decade ago.

"We have to adapt. We have to learn new strategies as teachers to include these students," said Gary Rito, director of curriculum and instruction for the district. "We're trying a variety of approaches."

As the contentious debate over bilingual education  continues to rage in Colorado and across the nation, accommodating students who don't speak English has simply become a quiet matter of necessity in the Eagle County schools.

"We believe that we need to get these kids into English as quickly as humanly possible," Rito continued. "At the same time, while the kid is acquiring English skills, we don't want them to fall back in content."

To help achieve that balance, three afternoons each week, instructor Christina Valderrama takes a group of about 10 students out of class for 35-minute sessions of "survival English," teaching them simple conversational skills before they are rotated out of the class and replaced by other

"Hello. How are you? My name is Miguel," one newly enrolled third-grader was instructed to say to another, reciting the most essential basics. "I am from Chihuahua (Mexico)."

Lured across the border by plentiful but modest-paying resort- area jobs such as housekeeping, construction and landscaping, Mexicans flocked to Eagle County. In the 1990s alone, the number of Hispanics more than tripled, and they now make up 25 percent of the region's population.

Nowhere is the impact greater than at Edwards Elementary - derisively called "Eduardo Elementary" by some - where more than half the children don't speak English at home and stark rifts in test scores have prompted extraordinary steps aimed at boosting education and blending cultures.

"We're really running two schools simultaneously here," said principal Cyndy Secrist, describing a traditional educational offering and an experimental set of Spanish programs created out of need.

Among the efforts the school has undertaken in a concerted, two-year effort aided by a $1 million federal Title VII grant:

* Creating innovative dual-language classrooms where children from both cultures learn seamlessly in both languages, with the goal of becoming completely bilingual by the time they leave fifth grade.

* Initiating a new after-school tutoring program for students from Spanish-speaking families.

* Establishing a bilingual PTA.

* Welcoming new foreign students and their parents through a special one-on-one orientation that includes baseline academic tests and weekly tours.

* Teaching a crash course in "survival" English for students new to the country.

Additionally, the district recruited dozens of teachers like Covasanschi through the Visiting International Faculty program, a three- year exchange network that adds an international flavor as well as some highly valued bilingual teaching skills.

"They know I'm on their side," said Covasanschi, 27, serving in her second year from Buenos Aires.

Despite the best efforts of teachers and administrators to teach both content and language skills, the district is wading into uncertain waters, as education experts are divided over the effectiveness of bilingual programs, and results won't be seen clearly for years to come.

And politically, such programs have been a lightning rod for criticism, with detractors claiming that they are ineffective "crutches" and that students often never become proficient in English.

"The dual-language programs don't do anybody, particularly the Spanish speakers trying to learn English, any justice at all," said Rita Montero, a former Denver school board member and the chief Colorado sponsor of last year's failed Amendment 31.

That statewide measure would have required all students who don't speak English to take intensive language "immersion" classes before making the cold-turkey transition into traditional classrooms.

Montero argues that dual-language programs cost more money, siphon off the top bilingual teachers and divide students' attentions.

"They either do a 50-50 day, or they do one day in English and one in Spanish, so they end up repeating the entire class. They're losing half of the year in instruction," she said. She acknowledged that schools must somehow cope with foreign tongues but suggested a consistent, statewide approach that would quickly wean students from bilingual education and provide cohesive educational building blocks for frequently uprooted migrants.

The culture swing at Edwards happened quickly: In 1993, only 18.4 percent - 84 of the school's 472 students - were Hispanic. Today, 65 percent of the students are Hispanic, and in the past five years, the number of students who don't speak English has more than doubled.

"It's been quite a change for the schools," Rito said, pointing to the need for a variety of new English- acquisition programs and outreach efforts, including a full-time translator at the district office who is available for parents.

The importance of acquiring English as quickly as possible is not in dispute, according to Richard Fry, a senior research associate at the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that is focused on documenting the impacts of Latinos in the United States.

"Pretty much across the board, everybody understands how important it is to learn English. The real controversies are over how to achieve it," Fry said.

The school dropout rate for students who don't speak English is 33 percent, as compared with 19 percent of those who learn the language, he said. Additionally, workers who don't speak English are paid an average of 20 percent less than their counterparts.

"Clearly in terms of both school success and career success, learning English is critical," Fry said.

And while Edwards Elementary has seen a dramatic swing in its Hispanic population, the trend is being seen nationwide - one in every five students today are the children of immigrants.

Despite some noticeable "white flight" to nearby private schools or the charter school in Edwards, many parents - Hispanic and Anglo alike - have remained committed and are convinced that the dual-language approach eventually will help their children get ahead in an increasingly international world.

"One of the biggest positives is cultural," said Bambi Forbes, an Anglo and the mother of a first- grader. "They make all these connections. ... They're all together on the playground and in the cafeteria. And it's happening among the parents, too. There's so much more community, even if it's just a hello while passing on the sidewalk. It's starting to break down cultural barriers."

Debunking criticism that dual- language programs detract from actual learning time, Forbes believes her son is sacrificing nothing academically and ultimately will have the benefit of being bilingual.

"He's already reading in Spanish," she noted.

Likewise, Mexican immigrant Guadalupe Marrufo is an unabashed supporter of the program, which provides instruction for her 7-year-old daughter, Carmen, in English and, just as critical to her, in Spanish.

"The reason for the program is that our children learn quickly and continue learning the things they should," she said in Spanish. "But apart from the fact that our children are learning the language of the country ... they are also learning their first language in the way they should."

Marrufo said her daughter struggled last year with her classes in English but has become far more proficient in second grade.

"It was obvious that she didn't understand the English very well. Now she feels more comfortable and doesn't complain," she said.

Dual-language education isn't for everyone, said parent Mindy DeLia, who wants to ensure that public schools put an equal emphasis on a standard, English-based curriculum.

An Anglo mother of four children who have battled the reading disorder dyslexia, DeLia selected the traditional track for her kids over the school's vaunted dual-language program and admits at times to a second-class feeling.

"As a parent, you want to feel that they're getting an appropriate education, and you don't want to feel your model is substandard," DeLia said. "I would prefer the emphasis be made on all the different programs in the school because I think all of them have value, and value in different ways, and value to different people."

She noted that while Edwards currently pays for a large chunk of its dual-language program through the five-year, $1 million federal grant, the competition for funding with the traditional track will grow more intense when that runs out, as well as when the students move on to higher

The outcome of these efforts will prove critical in determining the future path for a school where Hispanics lag dramatically behind their white counterparts in achievement tests.

In statewide CSAP testing last year, only 61 percent of Hispanic third-graders at the school achieved grade proficiency in reading, compared with 85 percent of white students. In writing, the numbers are even more dramatic: Only 17 percent of Hispanic students were proficient, compared with 64 percent of whites.

"Our goal is English for these kids, but it takes time to get there," Secrist said. "Native Spanish speakers who take the CSAP in Spanish do very well."

The problem is that all students must take the standardized test in English by fifth grade, even if they haven't been at the school as long as a full semester, much less for the entire five-year bilingual progression.

But Secrist - along with her faculty, the district administration and the parents - firmly believes the district will see marked progress in student achievement over the next few years as the seeds of bilingual education take root.

"It's really too soon for us to tell at this point how successful we've been," she said. "If we find that it isn't working, then we have to re-evaluate. But my intuition is that it's working."

Denver Post reporter Michael Riley contributed to this report.