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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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