By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
The parents at RosaLinda's say the district's transitional program reminds them of what's happening in California. Last June, 61 percent of voters approved Proposition 227, banning bilingual instruction in the state's schools. It's a subject that has provoked bitter debate. Proponents of bilingual education argue that kids will fall behind in school if they are forced to sink or swim in English-only classrooms, while detractors say bilingual instruction is a crutch that prevents kids from learning English and succeeding in U.S. society.
Although Colorado has no law mandating English-only instruction in schools, it is one of 24 states that has declared English its official language. The constitutional amendment, passed by voters in 1988, did not change the way Colorado conducts business; it was a symbolic act, officially recognizing "the importance of the English language" and preventing the possibility of "official bilingualism" in the future. But each step away from bilingual education hurts kids, some parents say, because knowing two or more languages is an asset.
"As the world gets smaller and the global economy expands, it's critical that we be multilingual," says Deborah Ortega, who lives two blocks from the new northwest Denver school and represents the neighborhood on the Denver City Council. "In just about every other country, people speak a minimum of two languages. We're the only country that's adopting backward legislation like English-only."
The school district's constituency has never been fully reflected on the school board--since the 1970s, there have been only a half-dozen Hispanic school-board members. In January, after at-large boardmember Lee White resigned, two Hispanics--LeRoy Romero, director of the Auraria Higher Education Center's small-business opportunities program, and James Mejia, executive director of the Denver Agency for Human Rights and Community Relations--were among four finalists vying for the position. The appointment went to Les Woodward, an Anglo corporate securities lawyer.
For many northwest Denver parents, their lack of a voice is only made worse by their very own school-board representative, Rita Montero.
Montero was elected to the Denver Board of Education in 1995, winning approximately 55 percent of the vote. Though its nonprofit status prohibited Padres Unidos from endorsing or opposing candidates, the group's director, David Portillo, says members did not embrace Montero back then. And they certainly don't now.
The parents already knew how Montero felt about bilingual education, because before she was elected, she had taken her son out of the bilingual program at northwest Denver's Columbian Elementary School and enrolled him in Traylor Elementary in southwest Denver's Bear Valley neighborhood.
A couple of years into her term, Montero made several trips to Washington, D.C., to defend the district's new plan to move kids out of bilingual classes and into English-only instruction. Those who hadn't been disenchanted with Montero before she was elected quickly became so after she went to the capital. "Rita Montero is the only Latina school-board member, and she went to Washington, D.C., and testified against bilingual education," says Maureen Keller. "You can only imagine how extremely disappointed the Hispanic community is that the person they elected to help them would turn around and do just the opposite."
Montero says her critics "know nothing about bilingual education." She says she ran for the school board because her son was in a bilingual program and she "knew what shape bilingual education was in. There were unqualified teachers, a lack of materials, and teachers who dumbed-down the curriculum."
Her son was placed in a bilingual class at Columbian Elementary School, which was "full of kids who spoke only Spanish, and yet the teacher didn't speak any Spanish. He was doing kindergarten-level work. I wanted him in an English-only classroom, and I got a waiver at Traylor Elementary to get him out of the bilingual program. That's how I got started in the whole bilingual debate."
During her first year on the board, Montero proposed revising the district's bilingual plan, but that would have to wait two years while DPS decided how to cope with the end of busing. When the district returned to the issue in 1997, Montero went to Washington to defend the district's revised bilingual plan. "Everything we had and wanted in our plan, we got. All we did with the Justice Department was wordsmithing," says Montero, who scoffs at the objection to her testimony in Washington. "It was my job as a school-board member to negotiate with the Justice Department. Why shouldn't I have gone--because I'm Mexican?"
Last fall, during the final year of Montero's first term on the school board, she disappointed constituents once again. After her son completed elementary school, Montero decided to enroll him in his neighborhood middle school. But shortly after the school year began, she pulled him out of northwest Denver's Skinner Middle School, which is 80 percent Hispanic, and enrolled him in southeast Denver's Hamilton Middle School, which is 13 percent Hispanic.
Montero says she transferred her son because of a lack of homework and an inadequate number of textbooks at Skinner. To remedy the shortage of textbooks, Montero drafted a policy that would require principals to spend their textbook dollars on books rather than on field trips and computers. "They didn't have the bar up high enough," Montero says of Skinner Middle School. "I wasn't willing to downgrade my son's education."