What's the best way to teach English?
April 15, 2006
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
"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
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
"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
"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.