Language Barrier

Denver Public Schools' bilingual-education policy is open to interpretation.

Anyone who knows Rita Montero and Joseph C'de Baca knows they're persistent. Some might describe them in less diplomatic terms: arrogant, in-your-face, sharp-tongued, downright troublesome.

Whatever their adversaries' adjective of choice, it would be hard to argue that Montero and C'de Baca are driven by anything but a passion for kids in the Denver Public School District and a desire for those children to get the best possible education. That's why they're not afraid to take unpopular stands when they don't agree with the way students -- particularly Hispanic students -- are being taught.

Montero, the former Denver Board of Education member who was often at odds with her northwest Denver constituency over how to educate Spanish-speaking students, and C'de Baca, a former DPS teacher who confronted just about everyone -- teachers, administrators, school-board members, even students ("Zero for Conduct," April 23, 1998) -- over the same confounding issue, are back. Only this time, they're fighting the system together.

Joseph C'de Baca doesn't mince words over bilingual education.
Brett Amole
Joseph C'de Baca doesn't mince words over bilingual education.

In the last three years, DPS has followed a nationwide trend of moving away from bilingual education: California outlawed it in 1998, and in November, Arizona voters will decide on a measure to severely limit bilingual instruction. Montero and C'de Baca say the DPS regressed this year, however, when it applied for a $3.3 million U.S. Department of Education grant that will provide students with more bilingual instruction and additional training for bilingual teachers. Not only do they believe that prolonged native-language instruction will harm kids -- they'll turn out "bi-illiterate" instead of bilingual, C'de Baca quips -- but they also believe that the grant flies in the face of the district's current court-ordered plan for educating non-English-speaking kids.

They're now asking lawyers to read through the grant proposal in search of something that reveals its incompatibility with the district's plan, and C'de Baca says he and Montero want to file an injunction to make sure the grant program gets put on hold until the legal issues are sorted out.

Montero and C'de Baca also suspect that something other than philosophy is behind the grant -- something green.

"Bilingual education has always been a cash cow," C'de Baca says. "These programs take on a life of their own, and as long as bilingual programs are perpetuated, there will need to be more money for more bilingual teachers, more training and a bureaucracy to support it."

The five-year grant asks DPS to give $1 million in in-kind contributions for office space and teacher salaries; the federal money covers operational costs. A full-time program director will get a $66,000 salary the first year; by the end of the five years, that person will be earning $75,737. Over the life of the grant, the director will also get more than $85,000 in fringe benefits, including health, dental and life insurance.

In addition, ten teachers and program staff members will attend the National Association of Bilingual Educators conference -- the next two are in Phoenix and Houston -- at a cost of $10,000 per year. During the first year of the program, $104,400 will pay for forty bilingual teachers to study in Mexico for a week (that covers tuition and room and board; teachers will have to pay their own airfare). The rest of the grant money will cover the salaries and benefits of other staff members as well as the cost of office supplies and instructional materials.

The program won't begin until 2001, and the details -- such as the number of additional instruction hours and how and when they will be delivered -- will be worked out this year. Initially, the extra bilingual education will be offered only at four pilot schools; in later years, it could be expanded to four more. No school will be forced to participate, nor will it be mandatory for any student to receive the additional instruction; in fact, schools that want more bilingual education will have to apply to be a part of the program. At the end of the five years, DPS can choose whether to keep the program -- and assume its costs -- or end it.

School-board member James Mejia is excited about the grant program. "Here we have an opportunity to work with a community that has been disengaged from the district for a long time. The direction we're headed in now is to provide more options for teachers, parents and students in the district, and this grant will be an additional option. Unless people are in favor of limiting options, I don't see how it could be harmful. It's just a way to reach more kids."

In March, then-superintendent Chip Zullinger worked with the Latino/Latina Research & Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Denver and the BUENO Center at CU-Boulder to draft the grant proposal. Zullinger then sent the grant application off to the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C., without telling school-board members. When he finally did tell the board a couple of weeks later, they were outraged. Not only had Zullinger applied for federal funds behind their backs, but boardmembers worried that accepting the grant might be illegal. (Zullinger was fired in May because he made a habit of going above his bosses' heads).

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