Original URL: http://www.rockymountainnews.com/drmn/opinion/article/0,1299,DRMN_38_1477715,00.html

Speakout: Javier's English coming along just fine

By Jim Polsfut
October 14, 2002

In June of 2000, one of Colorado's newest immigrants from Mexico was pictured on the cover of the Rocky Mountain News' Home Front section. At the time, the little boy was 6 years old. Just a month before, he had left his orphanage in Mexico and become my adopted son.

In an article about Javier Polsfut in that Home Front edition, reporter James B. Meadow cited many transitions already under way in my son's new world, including the acquisition of English. "The native tongue of Javier's adopted country will be introduced into his life gradually," Meadow predicted.

In light of the debate over Amendment 31, perhaps an update on Javier's progress in acquiring English could serve as a relevant, personal vignette of bilingual education in Colorado.

After he and I talked about what the amendment would mean to immigrant children like him, Javier and I decided together to share his story with readers of the News.

In May of 2000, Javier arrived in the United States with no formal education, in either language. In fact, back then at age 6, he had no recognition of numbers or letters beyond the ability to write his name.

When school started, Javier entered first grade at Dora Moore, a local Denver public school not far from our house. His classroom was composed entirely of native Spanish speakers.

Today, some two years later, Javier is in a mainstream, English-language, third-grade classroom.

As initially described in the Home Front article in 2000, Javier and I still speak primarily in Spanish at home.

At school, however, my son speaks English fluently, and he's now reading within the range of expectations established for native English speakers entering the third grade.

How did Dora Moore School successfully transition Javier into a mainstream English-language classroom after two years, along with every other child at Dora Moore who took part in his initial first-grade, Spanish-speaking classroom?

Javier and his first-grade peers began their elementary education in something called "native language instruction," and then steadily moved away from it.

In first grade, their teacher initially taught students to read in Spanish, while ensuring that they progressed in math, science and in other skills by using their native language. Even students with little to no early childhood education, like Javier, thereby lost no ground progressing in multiple academic disciplines, while simultaneously being introduced to English.

By the middle of second grade, however, English instruction had all but taken over the classroom. Whereas words like casa, una and la were on Javier's spelling lists at the beginning of the first grade, English words as complex as blue, sleep and paint appeared by the end of the second.

Today, Javier and his peers are divided into mainstream English classrooms while taking part in a third and final year of English assistance, amounting to English tutoring for up to one-and-a-half hours a day.

At the beginning of next year, my son and his peers will enter into full school days of uninterrupted, mainstream English, within the maximum three-year transition period mandated by Denver Public Schools.

Contrary to the one-year limit established under Amendment 31, three years per student is a reasonable timeframe to transition schoolchildren into English. Indeed, a three-year timeframe is a standard used increasingly throughout the country. Laws recently passed in Colorado now penalize individual schools that do not adhere to this standard by threatening their accreditation and federal funding under President Bush's No Child Left Behind initiative.

Even at his young and malleable age, Javier simply would not have been ready to enter a mainstream classroom after only one year of English assistance.

Many school districts throughout Colorado currently give parents a broad menu of options regarding how to meet the indisputable goal of teaching our children English, from unaided immersion to native language instruction.

Regrettably, Amendment 31 would take away much of the positive impact and timing of those basic options.

On behalf of students like Javier, as well as others whose age or economic circumstances make language acquisition potentially even more difficult, Amendment 31 should not be supported.

Jim Polsfut is chairman of Cordillera Asset Management in Denver.


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