State schools see '31' as a poor fit
Amendment called too Denver-specific
By Eric Hubler
Denver Post Education Writer
Tuesday, October 29, 2002
A year and a half ago, 20 Denver parents announced they didn't like how
Denver schools handled English acquisition for immigrants.
A few wrote to U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch saying the program, which his
court was monitoring, was ineffective and insensitive.
Thus was born Amendment 31. If voters approve it Nov. 5, it will virtually ban
bilingual education statewide and subject
noncompliant educators to dismissal and lawsuits.
"Amendment 31 would replace failed bilingual programs with English immersion for
immigrant children," former Gov. Dick Lamm says in a new pro-31 radio ad.
To many educators in the 177 school districts outside Denver, however, the
"English for the Children" amendment is the
latest example of a phenomenon that has long vexed them: State education policy
often seems to revolve around Denver.
For that reason and others, many districts oppose Amendment 31.
"We're going to have to adhere to all of these rules because of Denver," said
Aurora school board member Madolyn Paroske.
Ironically, Denver is the only district Amendment 31 wouldn't immediately affect
because Denver's English language
acquisition program remains under federal supervision. Matsch's court took
jurisdiction over the program after a civil
rights group sued Denver Public Schools for leaving students in Spanish classes
Now DPS aims to mainstream students in three years.
Not that Denver has no stake in whether Amendment 31 passes. If it does, the
measure's co-author, Rita Montero, said
she would seek to get DPS's program released from federal supervision and thus
dismantled by the new state amendment.
Ninety percent of Colorado's public-school students are not in Denver, said
Tustin Amole, a spokeswoman for the suburban Cherry Creek district. "We cannot
let DPS or any other single school district drive education policy for the
entire state," she said.
Amendment 31 is not the only example, Amole said. She believes lawmakers began
using CSAP tests to rate schools
because of an impression that schools statewide were lousy. They probably got
that idea from reading the Denver
newspapers, which over-report DPS's problems and under-report other districts'
successes, she said.
A similar phenomenon may be at work in the genesis of Amendment 31, said Ron Unz,
the California businessman who
co-authored the measure with Montero and wants to end bilingual education
"You could argue that it is primarily a Denver issue," Unz said.
Montero was one of the Denver parents who tried to get Matsch's attention. She
favored bilingual education as a young
activist but grew disgusted with it later in life when her son got put in a
Denver bilingual class merely because she checked a box saying Spanish was
spoken at home.
She and her husband wanted to teach the boy Spanish themselves; in school, they
wanted him taught in English. They
still are still unhappy, Montero says, that they had to switch schools to get
Montero went on to serve on Denver's school board from 1995-98. She concedes
she's not as familiar with other
districts. But she said other districts choose programs for kids without asking
parents, defeating the purpose of local control.
"I consider that institutional control," she said.
"Most (Colorado) school districts I know, except for Denver, generally use an
English-oriented curriculum for English
learners, and they would not be heavily affected by our initiative one way or
the other," Unz said.
So why a constitutional amendment?
"Denver is a big district and families move around a lot. So if a family spends
some years in Denver and doesn't learn English, and moves, it potentially causes
problems for them if they didn't learn English," Unz said.
Unz is right that most Colorado educators reject what he derides as
"Spanish-almost-only" education. But even many
who pride themselves on introducing English early say Amendment 31 would hamper
their efforts. Even though many
school boards have come out against Amendment 31, they endorse its basic
The phrase "local control" helps explain that seeming contradiction. Colorado is
one of 23 states that the Denver-based Education Commission of the States
classifies as "decentralized," and boards don't like to have their authority
Kathy Christie, a researcher for the group, said if Amendment 31 passes, it
would be the first instance of a state mandating a particular classroom
To understand how local educators feel about local control, consider Geoffrey
Wolff, an oil worker, father of two, and
president of the Kit Carson school board.
Most of what Wolff knows about bilingual education, he learned from talk radio.
He's against it.
That should make him a 31 supporter. Yet he says he'll vote no.
"I don't know who's behind this amendment, but let them get involved in their
area and see how they can help that way," he said.
Kit Carson is a 950-square-mile Eastern Plains district with only one school and
125 students. One of them is an English
The way 6-year-old Nitzia Salcido learns is old-fashioned, even charming, and in
keeping with the spirit of Amendment 31. First-grade teacher Tracey Weeks
doesn't speak Spanish - no adult at the K-12 Kit Carson School does - so she sat
Nitzia down with three classmates and a basket of books and told them to read to
"Do you know what it is?" one boy asked, pointing to a picture. "Say, 'a kid."'
Nitzia, placid and pretty in a white blouse and gold jewelry, seemed to glow
with the attention.
"It's basically immersion," Kit Carson Superintendent Gerald Keefe.
If 31 passes, Kit Carson would have to create a separate immersion class for
Nitzia. The only way around that would be
to declare the entire grade an immersion class, Unz told The Denver Post.
Neither idea suits Keefe. Nitzia, who also gets private English lessons from a
special-ed teacher, began speaking her new
tongue after two weeks. Keefe feels that's good enough to warrant letting Kit
"Seems to be simpler than passing a constitutional amendment that treats Denver
Public Schools and Kit Carson equally," he said. "We're as dissimilar as they
come on this."
Nor is this the only way in which Keefe feels city folk have taken an
unreasonably dim view of his school. Why, he wonders, is the legislature trying
to give him money to implement character education and anti-bullying programs?
"I haven't had to erase anything from the bathroom with my name on it for five
years," he marvels. The biggest controversy in Kit Carson may be whether track
star Jennifer Johnson takes Harvard's scholarship offer or Princeton's.
Suburban Littleton also would seem able to welcome - or at least ignore -
"We do not do primary language support," said Lucinda Hundley, assistant
superintendent of student support services.
Littleton uses "sheltered immersion" - exactly what Amendment 31 calls for. "We
wouldn't be that impacted instructionally," Hundley said.
Littleton's immersion classes mix speakers of various languages - just as 31
envisions - so English becomes their common code.
When Beth Capron's group at East Elementary encountered the word fragile the
other day, Spanish-speaker Juan Carlos
Torres and Vietnamese-speaker Hoang Dinh conferred about what sorts of things
"The top of the toilet," Juan Carlos said. "If you drop it, it'll break."
"A light bulb?" Hoang said.
"Oh, that's so fragile!" Juan Carlos agreed.
"The unbelievable thing about the immersion program in this school is that in a
very short amount of time - I'm talking three, four years - they're reading at
or very near grade level," said Sophea Trabosh, the homeroom teacher of three of
But that would be too long under Amendment 31, which says immersion classes are
"not normally to exceed one year."
"Kids don't come out of a cookie cutter," Superintendent Stan Scheer complained.
"Some need more time than others."
"Bilingual" was becoming a dirty word in many school districts long before
Amendment 31 showed up, but not in Alamosa, in the largely Hispanic San Luis
"We celebrate bilingualism," board president and former Alamosa High principal
Ron Hunter said.
In 1993, Alamosa was criticized by the federal Office of Civil Rights for having
no plan to help English learners.
Alamosa submitted, and the feds accepted, a 55-page pledge titled "Plan for
Providing Linguistic and Cultural Equity for All Students." The district
promised to get teachers properly licensed in bilingual education and English as
Since then, Alamosa has settled into a system where bilingual teachers use
Spanish when they feel it's needed to help kids
understand what's going on.
Antoinette Rodriguez, a kindergarten teacher at Polston Elementary, showed how
it works. Three of the 10 children in
her afternoon class aren't yet proficient in English.
To teach them about categories, Rodriguez let them each choose an apple from a
basket. Then they arranged them by
size and color. That meant big and small and red and green to some; grande and
pequeno and rojo and verde to others.
"I really don't understand how I can be forbidden from speaking Spanish. That
would be like having one hand tied
behind my back. It would be a handicapping condition as a teacher, and the
children would lose out," Rodriguez said.
Summit County, home to ski-industry executives and Mexican laborers, thinks it
has arrived at a balanced approach to
English acquisition on its own. If American schools are struggling it's because
of - not despite - increasing attention
from state capitals and Washington, Superintendent Wes Smith said.
Steven Riggins, principal of Silverthorne Elementary, knows exactly what led Ron
Unz to take on bilingual education. Riggins once was a bilingual teacher in San
"I and a lot of others had questions about what was going on because those kids
were in Spanish their entire K-6 career," he said.
But Silverthorne is nothing like the California barrio because all 95 English
learners are in mainstream homerooms, Riggins
said. They're pulled out for English lessons of 30 minutes to 2 hours.
Teachers do use Spanish - but never, Riggins insists, exclusively.
"We don't have any classes where only Spanish is spoken," added Superintendent
"DPS might, and certainly that was the issue in California. That's not been the
model ever in this school district."
Top fourth-grader Selene Saenz said her two years of Spanish support, which
would be illegal under Amendment 31 without a hard-to-obtain waiver, helped her
Educators in several parts of Colorado told The Post they had no reason to doubt
Montero that Denver's bilingual program has problems.
But why, asked Virginia Guzman, principal of Billie Martinez Elementary in
Greeley, would anyone in Denver want to change her school?
She said parents are happy with the dual-language approach used at Martinez and
fear Amendment 31 would harm the
"We obviously have not had the horrific experiences that Rita and some of the
parents have said they had," Guzman said.
Added teacher Sarah Musselman: "They have examples from Denver, and they have no
examples of failure from anywhere else in the state."
So it goes for educators in the hinterlands. In Kit Carson, Superintendent Keefe
recently spent $500 of his own money
buying CDs of the school wind ensemble, which routinely takes first prizes in
state competitions. After the election, he'll send the discs to state
legislators and the governor along with a plea to find a few lines on the state
report cards to let him
trumpet the band's success instead of focusing so heavily on test scores.
"There seemed to be this attitude in the state legislature that nobody in
Colorado cared about what kind of education their
kids were getting, and that's just not true" he said.