ESL preferred choice

Bilingual ed not used by many
districts outside of Denver

By Nancy Mitchell, Rocky Mountain News
October 11, 2002

In schools across Colorado, the methods used to teach the state's 70,000 English learners are nearly as varied as the 140
languages they speak.

But Amendment 31, a ballot measure aimed primarily at ridding Denver Public Schools of bilingual education, would replace them all with a single program - a year of English immersion.

Ironically, bilingual education is not widely used outside Denver.

Instead, the instruction of choice for English learners in districts from Grand Junction to Kiowa, from Poudre Valley to the San Luis Valley, is English as a Second Language or ESL.

Unlike bilingual education, ESL typically involves little use of a student's native language, commonly Spanish. But proponents of Amendment 31 differ on whether ESL programs meet the definition of immersion outlined in the measure - or would have to be scrapped.

That difference, for some school districts, is huge.

In Jefferson County, the state's largest school district, 141 schools use ESL and three schools use bilingual instruction to teach more than 3,000 English learners.

If Amendment 31 passes, officials estimate it would cost $20,000 to $40,000 to rework three bilingual programs - but that figure rises to $4 million to $8 million if they also must retool all 141 ESL models and create separate immersion classes.

"There are so many items in the law that are very general and ambiguous," said Cindy Hernandez, who oversees English
acquisition programs in Jeffco. "For that reason, it's very hard to make sense of exactly what is going to happen."

Amendment 31 supporters say educators' cost claims - and other concerns - are unfounded.

"The evidence everywhere in the country is it saves money," said Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who is bankrolling the Colorado effort after successfully pushing similar anti-bilingual initiatives in California and Arizona. "The ESL teacher basically becomes a regular classroom teacher."

Adds Rita Montero, who is heading the pro-31 campaign, English for the Children of Colorado: "They can make it work."

Here are snapshots of three Colorado schools, how they teach English learners and how that might change if Amendment 31 passes:

Bilingual in Jeffco

On a recent afternoon in a bilingual classroom at Edgewater Elementary in Jefferson County, 14 kindergartners whose first language is Spanish are seated in a circle for their daily hour of English instruction.

"Oh, who is wearing red?" they sing along in English with teacher Stephanie Chachkhiani. "Please, can you tell me/ Oh, who is wearing red?"

They attentively follow along as Chachkhiani reads aloud, in English, from the book Fresh Fall Leaves. They stand, one by one, to sing in English about leaves falling on heads, noses and toes.

If the bilingual guidelines are followed correctly, these youngsters will hear 80 percent of their daily instruction in Spanish and 20 percent in English. The latter includes an hour with Chachkhiani, who is an ESL teacher.

By first grade, that will shift to a 70-30 ratio of Spanish, including
literacy skills, and English. By second grade, gradually, it moves to
a 60-40 ratio. By third grade, it eases from 50 percent English in
the fall to 100 percent English by spring.

"The goal of the school is not bilingualism," said Diane Rosen, the
school's other ESL teacher. "The goal of the school is English

Edgewater parents can move their children learning English into
regular classrooms if they choose. This year, parents of three
English learners who are first-graders did just that.

Those students sit in regular classrooms most of the day but are
pulled out daily for an hour to work in small groups with Rosen or

Edgewater Principal B.J. Pell said the school added a bilingual component two years ago to help the growing numbers of English language learners. Other steps include an after-school program that gives those students an extra half-hour dose of talking and singing in English.

The extra effort is paying off. Pell points to test scores showing that 77 percent of English learners made more than a year's worth of growth in English fluency last school year.

Under Amendment 31, parents would have to obtain waivers to place their children in bilingual classes like those at Edgewater. The measure allows waivers only for students who already know English, who are over age 10 or who have documented special physical or psychological needs.

Educators who do not follow the law, if it is approved, face lawsuits and removal from their jobs for five years.

Hernandez, the Jeffco administrator, said she's not certain district officials would be willing to risk the liability involved in granting waivers to continue bilingual classes at Edgewater and at Stein and Lumberg elementaries. The amendment allows educators to refuse waivers without explanation.

"My supposition is that no waivers would be granted in bilingual education, and that bilingual education would not be at those schools," Hernandez said.

Montero sees that as no big loss.

Students in bilingual programs such as Edgewater's "are losing years of English," she said.

At Highline Elementary in Cherry Creek, where one in three students speaks limited English, children learn the language with little help in their native tongue.

"If you get the blank stare from a student, you might use a phrase," said Principal David Fischer.

It's a form of ESL used throughout Cherry Creek. No schools offer bilingual classes.

That's due to the diversity of English learners, said spokeswoman Tustin Amole. While the district's 4,525 English learners include 1,575 native Spanish speakers, there are also 600 native Korean speakers, 532 native Russian speakers and more than 100 speakers each of Arabic, Chinese and Vietnamese.

Bilingual programs, typically geared to Spanish speakers, "wouldn't be practical for us," Amole said.

Fischer said the school's ESL program varies by grade because younger students increasingly need the services.

In grades K-1, where 61 of 130 students are English learners, ESL teachers work alongside regular classroom teachers, or "team teach," to help students.

"The goal is that they have as much of the regular classroom as possible so they're immersed in English," he said.

In grades 2-5, students sit in regular classrooms most of the day and are pulled out for about an hour to work directly with an ESL teacher.

Colorado law does not require ESL teachers to know Spanish or any language other than English. At Highline, some teachers do speak Spanish but use it "on a very limited basis," Fischer said.

"If the teacher says, 'I want you to do this,' and the student gives a look like, 'I don't understand,' then we will use a phrase to make sure the student understands what they're expected to do," he said. "The Spanish primarily is used in communication with the parents."

In addition, the school offers full-day kindergarten for English learners and English classes for parents. Fischer considers time so precious that, during parent classes, tutors are on hand to give students an extra helping of English.

Even with those extras, students generally need three years of help with English, Fischer said. He said the single year of
immersion called for in Amendment 31 "is simply not feasible."

Montero and Unz disagree, believing a year's instruction in English is enough to allow students to move on and tackle schoolwork.

The two differ, however, on whether an ESL program such as Highline's would fit the English immersion requirements of
Amendment 31.

Montero says no. She argues that parents who want their students in ESL classes would have to follow the same waiver
process required for bilingual classes.

Too often, she said, ESL students are ignored by regular classroom teachers.

"We're trying to get away from English as a Second Language," Montero said. "The kids get little instruction in those classrooms. Ninety percent of the day, they don't know what's going on."

Unz, who wrote Amendment 31, is less strict about ESL. He said Montero's insistence on separate English immersion classrooms is a correct reading of the measure. But he's more concerned about students stuck in bilingual classes than in ESL.

"So long as you're teaching students in English rather than Spanish, and you're doing a reasonably good job trying to make
sure you have some reasonably well-trained teachers in the program, I can't imagine anybody complaining too much," Unz

Educators aren't sure they want to risk it, especially with Montero watching.

"We would need some additional direction on exactly how to interpret the law," Amole said, "because it's quite punitive, and we would obviously want to comply."

A dual-language model

A small but growing percentage of English learners in Colorado are learning English and Spanish together.

Dual-language programs have spread to seven school districts and are now used to teach about 3 percent of students who speak little English.

Harris Bilingual Immersion School in Fort Collins is one example.

On a recent rainy morning at Harris, first-grade teacher Isa Pinedo is working on literacy skills with a group of students in their native Spanish.

Across the hall, teacher Carolina Levy-Bennett is leading a group of first-graders through a book discussion in their native English.

Once literacy class is over, some students from each group will switch places and settle into classrooms that are roughly half native Spanish and half native English.

Then, because it's English week, the mixed classes will have math, science and social studies in English. Next week, during Spanish week, those topics will be taught in Spanish. Each week, the languages alternate.

Harris' program is popular. More than 400 names fill a waiting list at Harris, one of the state's oldest dual-language models, and parents sing its praises.

"It is like a baby learning to talk," parent Denise Walters said of watching her daughter in class. "They hear the language, they get it in context, they pick up enough until they begin to learn it. It's amazing to watch."

Walters signed up daughter Erin, now 7, for Harris when the girl was only 10 months old. Teresa Suazo said she moved from Kansas so her two children could attend. And Patricia Stryker, an heiress whose daughter attends Harris, donated $3 million to fight Amendment 31 because it could severely restrict the program.

Under Amendment 31, native English speakers could enroll in a dual-language program without waivers. But Unz and Montero say native Spanish speakers would have to obtain waivers to participate.

If Amendment 31 passes, "Harris as it exists now would cease to exist," said Principal Larry Slocum.

Montero claims dual-language programs do little for native Spanish speakers. Instead, she said they serve as unpaid
Spanish tutors for Anglo children.

"For the English speakers, dual language is an enrichment," she said. "For our second language learners, learning English is not an enrichment. It's an absolute necessity."


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