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Northwest of downtown Denver, a neighborhood peers out over the city's skyscrapers and railyards. In the late 1800s, Highlands was a pristine city whose residents were proud of their elevated metropolis, separated from Denver by a valley through which a highway now runs. The Highlanders pitied the poor souls below who had to breathe the foul emissions of nearby smelters. In fact, the air on the west bank of the Platte River was considered so pure that it became a haven for tuberculosis patients, who sought rejuvenation at a sanitarium on West 32nd Avenue and Eliot Street.
"To be a perfect Eden, a Utopia, was the dream and ambition of the whole town of Highlands, the people of the town were a very proud people," reads a description of the town compiled by the Potter-Highlands Preservation Association. Highlands residents "were proud of their homes...They were proud of their gardens, their trees, their churches, their schools."
In the late nineteenth century, the town's most elite street was "the Boulevard." Today, North Federal Boulevard is lined with taquerias, Mexican bakeries and small boutiques like Las Rosas, at 4100 Federal Boulevard, a flower shop serving all occasions, including quinceaneras, the traditional Mexican birthday celebration for fifteen-year-old girls. Neighbors gather at Highland Grounds, 3301 Tejon Street, to read El Semanario, La Voz, the Urban Spectrum and the North Denver Tribune. The residents of the neighborhood now called Highland are still proud people. Proud of their homes, their churches, their schools.
But Highland and its neighbors to the north and west still stand alone. They're isolated from other areas of Denver not just by physical boundaries but by ethnic and economic lines. The majority of residents in this part of town earn between $5,000 and $20,000 a year; most hold clerical or blue-collar jobs. Despite recent gentrification, northwest Denver is still largely poor and Hispanic.
And almost half of the Hispanic teenagers in the Denver Public School district drop out of school. Wealth and good schools have followed growth to the southern parts of town, but since busing ended in 1995, class sizes in northwest Denver have grown while resources have shrunk. Last November, the Denver Public School District asked voters to pass a $305 million bond to pay for new schools. The district got what it asked for, and a new elementary school will be built in northwest Denver. Now parents have a request of their own: They want a say in what the new school will offer.
In the quiet morning hours before RosaLinda's Mexican Cafe opens, Rosa Linda Aguirre opens the door to allow fresh air and sunlight inside her colorful restaurant at 2005 West 33rd Avenue. Three friends from Padres Unidos, a parent organization Aguirre co-chairs, have come to talk about esperanza, hope. It's what these parents have for their children's education--great hope for the new school on 36th Avenue and Zuni Street that will open in the fall of 2001. But that hope is mixed with uncertainty and fear.
"It's always the same thing with the DPS--they mean well, but we know what we want for our children, our community," Aguirre says, pounding her fist on the table. "We want to be involved 100 percent. This is our community, our children."
DPS officials often call on Aguirre to translate to Spanish-speaking parents. Two years ago she helped DPS notify neighborhood homeowners that if they approved the bond, they would get a new school. But school-board members didn't seek input from parents, Aguirre says. "Instead," she says, "they come and bring this big white elephant and say, 'What color ribbon do you want to put around its neck?'"
Aguirre and the other parents huddled in the booth at RosaLinda's say that for years, the people of northwest Denver have been fighting a losing battle for better schools. They say DPS is failing Hispanic kids because it has not kept pace with changing demographics. Of the 68,893 students currently enrolled in DPS, almost half are Hispanic: For 13,070 of them, Spanish is their first language. In 1984--the year the federal government required DPS to offer formal bilingual education after the Congress of Hispanic Educators sued the district--5,500 students were not proficient in English. Today 14,660 students are euphemistically labeled "English-language learners."
Test scores at the four elementaries that will feed into the new school are considerably lower than those in whiter and wealthier south Denver. More than 90 percent of students at each of the feeder schools are Hispanic; more than 85 percent of them qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. The Padres Unidos members gathered at the cafe feel that DPS deems their children less worthy of the tax money that is more abundant from homeowners who live where property values are high.
The parents have visited their principals and teachers, only to come away discouraged. With Aguirre translating, Guadalupe Lopez explains how parents visit schools only to be told to make an appointment 24 hours in advance. "And when no one speaks their language, parents don't go back to the school," Lopez says in rapid-fire Spanish.
"No parent should have to call 24 hours before visiting their child's school," says Aguirre, who often accompanies parents to schools to translate or to provide moral support.
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.
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."
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."
"That's bull," says Montero. The school board decided to form an advisory committee immediately after the bond passed and was deciding how to recruit members when some residents preempted the board by meeting on their own, Montero says. The district is forming advisory committees for every new school being built with bond money, she notes, which further proves that the district isn't bowing to pressure from parents in northwest Denver. The board is also establishing construction advisory committees so that parents can have a say in what their new schools look like.
But like other parents, Marty Roberts isn't sure all parents and students are getting equal representation on the advisory committee. "There are no Spanish-dominant speakers on the committee," she says. "There are some who say they are bilingual, but English is their main language. Those are two different things."
Members of Padres Unidos wonder why none of them were selected to be on the committee. Montero recalls that two Padres Unidos parents applied for the position; group co-chair Pam Martinez says at least ten members applied. One parent was rejected because she no longer had children in elementary school, and the board was seeking representatives from the four feeder schools. Another parent, Montero says, applied at the last minute, after all committee members had been chosen.
Even some members of the DPS-chosen advisory committee think the district is fast-tracking the process. At the first committee meeting on March 23, the ten members were told that they were to present a recommendation to the school board by May 5. At the committee's second meeting in early April, committee member Patrick Ridgeway could no longer hide his frustration.
"The community has asked to be involved for five months, and you've given us five weeks," he told Montero and other school officials packed into the Smedley Elementary School auditorium. "You've set the agenda. I would like to ask as a committee that we can provide some things," he said--meaning that he wanted the group to be able to decide what to discuss at the meetings instead of being force-fed information from the school district. As if on cue, other committee members gathered around the table in the front of the auditorium voiced their own concerns about the looming deadline, saying it wouldn't give them time to study school programs. The district granted the committee members an extension; now they're supposed to present their recommendations to the school board on June 24.
Before the April 6 meeting began, Mary Ray, the district's acting assistant superintendent for elementary education, cautioned the committee against recommending an expensive program such as Montessori. "Any time there's [teacher] training involved, there's monies involved," she said.
Keller fears the school board will use the cost of specialty programs to deny parents what they want. But she and other parents are launching a fundraising drive to help cover any extra costs associated with the new school. Keller has already contacted two private foundations--the Rose Community Foundation and the Denver Foundation--which have money available for school reform projects.
"It's not an issue of whether it will be a Montessori school or some other type of school. It's a power issue," Keller says. "[The DPS doesn't] want this community to rally for something and win it, because if parents at other schools see a success story in our neighborhood, the district will have an uprising of parents wanting a say in their schools. It's more than just an educational issue. It's a community issue."
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