By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
None of the parents rallying around the new school want to downgrade their kids' education, and that's why they want something other than a traditional neighborhood school. They say test scores at northwest Denver's four elementary schools--which showed that less than 50 percent of third-graders were proficient in reading--prove that neighborhood schools are failing their kids.
Parents blame the poor student performance on inconsistent teaching methods and a lack of qualified teachers. "In one class, a teacher would speak only Spanish. In another, someone would speak it part of the time. We started educating ourselves about what were good practices," says Portillo.
They started by visiting schools with enviable test results. One such school is Washington Elementary Bilingual School in Boulder. There one sign welcomes visitors in Spanish, another in English. A mural inside depicts characters from children's English- and Spanish-language books. Anglo kids who grew up in English-speaking homes walk arm in arm with children who have immigrated from Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico. They speak to each other in Spanish, then English, switching easily from one language to the other.
Every class they take--even gym, music and art--is taught in Spanish and English. Students learn in English 50 percent of the time and in Spanish 50 percent of the time. Native English speakers make up half the school; native Spanish speakers make up the other half. The National Association of Bilingual Educators considers the school a model for bilingual education, and the test scores are a mark of its success: Eighty-six percent of third-graders there scored at or above proficiency level in reading on the 1998 Colorado Student Assessment Program test.
Washington Bilingual is one of only four dual-language schools in the state (the others are in Fort Collins, Brighton and Greeley), and the parents of northwest Denver marvel at the fact that Boulder, a much smaller school district (26,000 students) with a much smaller Spanish-speaking population (911 students) has a bilingual school while Denver does not.
Parents also visited Denison Elementary, the district's only Montessori school. The curriculum was developed in Italy in the early 1900s by Maria Montessori, who believed that children learn best not by hearing lectures, but by using all of their senses and working independently, with the teacher present only as a guide. In Montessori schools, children of all ages take classes together and learn from each other.
Sixty-six percent of third-graders at Denison scored at or above proficiency level in reading on last year's CSAP test, and scores on the 1998 Iowa Test of Basic Skills were well above the national average. Two private preschools in the neighborhood already offer Montessori instruction, and a private Montessori preschool is scheduled to open in the fall of 2000.
But district officials have cautioned parents to consider the cost of opening a specialty school. It's more expensive to fund Montessori schools, because they require extra teacher training; they also begin educating kids early, and DPS doesn't receive government funding to educate children younger than five. "The Montessori school costs the DPS $350,000 more a year than any other school," says Montero, adding that parents also need to "take into consideration whether the technique [they choose] will be transferable to another school."
Because of the mobility of students within the district, officials fear that if a student begins his education at a Montessori school and then transfers to one with a traditional curriculum, he will have a difficult time adjusting. And, Montero says, because children often begin attending Montessori schools at age three, "if a child moves into the neighborhood as a first-grader, he won't be able to attend. The neighborhood-school concept is eliminated with Montessori." (At Denison Elementary, a magnet Montessori that kids in the district can attend no matter where they live, older children can apply, but priority is given to students who have had prior Montessori instruction.)
With advice like that, parents are beginning to doubt they'll get what they want: a dual-language or a combination Montessori/dual-language school. It could be the compromise that would allow students to quickly become fluent in English, as DPS wants; to retain their native Spanish while learning English, as the Hispanic parents want; and to become fluent in Spanish, as the Anglo parents want.
In November, after a request by Highland neighbors, school officials met with parents--but couldn't tell them what they had planned for the new school. "They couldn't answer any of our questions. We said we wanted to get involved and we asked how, and they said they didn't know," says Keller. "So a group of community members decided to get organized. But the school board didn't like that, because we were acting autonomously and that's somehow dangerous."
The school board decided to form its own advisory committee. The ten-member northwest Denver Elementary School Program Design Advisory Committee is supposed to advise the school board on what type of curriculum to offer at the new school, which will accommodate between 500 and 600 students. The committee is made up of eight parents--four Hispanics and four Anglos--the principal of Bryant-Webster Elementary, and an English Language Acquisition teacher at Bryant-Webster.
The members of Padres Unidos and other parents not affiliated with the group respect the people chosen to be on the committee, and they don't think the group will be a rubber stamp for the school board. However, they fear committee members will have little say in what type of school goes into their neighborhood. "We know the committee wouldn't have formed had we not organized," Keller says. "Forming the advisory committee was a way for the DPS to control it and set the meeting times."