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!Atencion, Por Favor!

Parents in northwest Denver say the school district doesn't listen--so they're making more noise.

With her intense eyes and fluent English, Aguirre commands respect when she walks into a school. She has demanded that her kids' teachers provide her with weekly progress reports so there are no surprises when grades come out. Lopez says that when Aguirre is with her, principals change their tone and offer her coffee. "I don't want coffee," Lopez says, switching from Spanish to English. "I want solutions."

Parents in northwest Denver have a chance to create their own solutions--if the Denver Board of Education will listen.

In 1991, the principal at west Denver's Valverde Elementary School disciplined students by making them sit on the floor to eat lunch. Parents learned that only Hispanic kids were receiving the punishment and bombarded the school with visits and phone calls. Their complaints ended the practice, and in the process, Padres Unidos was formed. Eight years later, the group has grown to 300 members.

Padres Unidos member Marty Roberts says the school district views the group as a bunch of troublemakers. "Instead of looking at us as a threat, they should rejoice that parents want to be involved in their kids' education," she says. "They have not appreciated this community group and worked with us."

The distrust of DPS has deep roots in northwest Denver. Two years ago, in an effort to relieve overcrowding, DPS wanted to move students from Zuni Alternative High School, at Zuni and 29th Avenue, to a building on 28th Avenue and Wyandot Street that once housed an insurance office. "The community went berserk because the new building wasn't adequate for a high school--it was an office building!" says Highland resident Maureen Keller, a former DPS middle-school teacher. "There were also traffic and safety concerns, and neighbors were worried about parking problems on their streets.

"The DPS went ahead with the move despite the outcry from the community. They assured neighbors that there would be extra security and that they'd restrict student parking," Keller says. But since the Contemporary Learning Academy opened, graffiti has been sprayed on neighbors' houses; they also say the presence of the school has devalued their homes and that student parking restrictions haven't been enforced.

Residents felt betrayed by DPS again in January, when Mount Carmel High School, which stood on the lot slated for the new elementary school, was torn down. The Italian Catholic school, which had been built in 1951 by Denver architect Temple Buell, closed in 1968. School district officials say the building had to be razed because it contained asbestos, but neighbors hoped it could be resurrected to house the new elementary school. In November and December, Mary Lee Rossi--who grew up in northwest Denver, graduated from Mount Carmel and married a man she met there--helped organize neighbors against the demolition. Eighteen people wrote to school-board members and DPS officials. Of the six letters Rossi sent, none received a response.

Roberts says she has stumbled across countless hurdles in her fifteen years as a DPS parent. Her two children attended Bryant-Webster Elementary, and now, as the school's community representative, Roberts says she has watched the district overrule decisions that were supposed to be made by school administrators and parents.

"Even though the central administration talks about site-based management, they haven't let go of their power and given schools the resources they need," Roberts says. "The people in the community spend a lot of time researching things and surveying parents to improve our students' academic achievement, but our hands are tied because we aren't allowed to implement the decisions we make for our schools. When we ask to expand the hours of the school day to create more time for teacher development, central administration comes in and tells us we can't do it. It's three steps forward, four steps back."

It was Padres Unidos that forced a three-year government probe into the Denver Public Schools' bilingual education program. In November 1994, 65 parents filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights, accusing DPS of wrongfully placing students with limited English proficiency in special-education classes, not employing enough qualified teachers, and not supplying students with adequate instructional materials.

Their complaints were validated in 1997, when the OCR found that DPS practices were violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964. On July 31, 1997, the OCR notified DPS that the case would be handed over to the Justice Department if the district did not come up with an acceptable education plan within ten days. Seven days later, DPS submitted its English Language Acquisition Program plan--which the OCR found unacceptable. This February, the Justice Department finally reached an agreement with DPS: The school district was required to have a professor from the University of Colorado provide outside monitoring of its program, and teachers in bilingual programs were required to have 150 hours of training.

At the same time as the Justice Department was reviewing the case, the district was making its own changes in its bilingual program. Before 1997, there had been no limit on how long students could receive instruction in their native language. Under the district's revised plan, kids spend their first three years of school in native language classes; in the fourth grade, they receive "sheltered English" instruction, with subjects taught in Spanish and English. By the time they enter the fifth grade, they learn solely in English. If students are not ready for immersion in an English-only setting, they can remain in the transitional program.

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