What's the best way to teach English?
Greeley Tribune 
April 15, 2006

Maria Sanchez-Traynor

A discussion about bilingual education versus English immersion Thursday turned into an impassioned debate among panel members and their audience. The panel was one of the highlights of the annual Social Justice and Diversity Conference at the University of Northern Colorado and focused on the best way to teach English language-learning students.

"It's so easy to think of a straightjacket approach where one size fits all," said Juvenal Cervantes, a board member for the Colorado Association of Bilingual Educators. "But children learn differently."

Defending English immersion were Weld County Commissioner Bill Jerke and community member Maria Secrest, who have teamed up to start a ballot initiative that would limit bilingual education in Colorado schools. Clair Orr, a former state board of education member, also defended immersion.

Jerke said he has met a sixth-grade student in Greeley-Evans School District 6 who still can't speak English.

"I can't think of a greater indictment of our language system," he said.

Debating the immersion supporters were Cervantes and UNC professors Madeline Milian and Tom Griggs. Griggs said that students need a foundation in their first language before they can learn a second.

"If we take away that foundation, we create a disaster," he said.

District 6 Superintendent Renae Drier and board president Bruce Broderius were invited to take part in the panel and originally accepted, but later declined. They said they weren't sure what direction the district will be taking in its language instruction.

The talks grew heated when the panel took questions from the audience.

Andres Guerrero, who teaches Spanish at Aims Community College, demanded to know why the heads of state education, like Clair Orr, are letting Latino children fail.

"There's not just one single issue causing the problem," Orr said.

Kurt Overturf, a former middle school teacher, pointed out that supporters of bilingual education have a financial stake in their cause because they are teaching it.

"I'll still be teaching no matter how it is taught," Griggs responded.

Several of the 50 people in the audience supported bilingual education and peppered Jerke, Secrest and Orr with questions.

Roberto Córdova asked why they wanted to strip students of their native language and then give it back to them in high school.

"I don't think I was stripped of anything," said Secrest, who is a native Spanish speaker. "You keep the language in your heart, and you keep it at home."

The ballot initiative started by Jerke and Secrest is in its initial stages. They have a few more legal hurdles to clear before they can start collecting petitions to get the initiative on the ballot.