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
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,
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
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.