At the heart of Denver's most contentious school-board race is a weed-studded field on 37th Avenue and Zuni Street. It will be the site of northwest Denver's newest elementary school. But the fenced-in lot has also come to symbolize years of struggle between parents in northwest Denver and the Denver Public School District.
Parents have long asked for more money, more books, more computers and more bilingual teachers to help raise Hispanic students' test scores and lower the dropout rate. But a neighborhood movement to help determine the curriculum for the new school, which is slated to open in the fall of 2001, has increased the tension ("¡Atención, Por Favor!" April 29), and the fight has served to distinguish the two candidates running for the Board of Education's District 5 seat.
Incumbent Rita Montero is opposed to a dual-language/Montessori program at the new school -- the model that most of the parents have asked for -- because she doesn't believe it would serve the community.
Her challenger, Lucia Guzman, wholeheartedly supports it.
Members of the education watchdog group Padres Unidos and other northwest Denver parents have been waiting for the board to decide the fate of the new school ever since June, when the majority of a board-appointed committee made up of teachers and parents recommended the dual-language/Montessori approach. While the board has been mulling over the scenarios -- including a traditional neighborhood school with a Spanish-language enrichment program, a regimented fundamental-style school or a school with a music, arts or technology focus -- parents have anxiously attended board meetings. But each time they thought a vote was coming, the board postponed it.
Now the parents have a reason to want a delay -- at least until November 2.
That's the day many members of the Northwest Denver Community for Dual Language/Montessori citizens' group hope to see Guzman elected to office.
The Reverend Guzman, an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church and the former executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches, recently bought the Highland Grounds coffee shop, a popular gathering place at 3301 Tejon Street, and turned it into Lucia's Casa de Café. And she is as different from her opponent as they come. Her soft-spoken nature contrasts sharply with Montero's outspoken personality; Guzman chooses her words carefully, while Montero isn't afraid to use a "bullshit" here and there when she disagrees with something.
The two camps have exchanged heated words. After a recent newspaper article quoted Montero as saying she'd support vouchers if private schools allowed any student to attend, Guzman's campaign volunteers responded with a press release stating: "Montero to dismantle public schools." The release cited Montero's quote in the Denver Rocky Mountain News ("I would support a parent's right to choice") and went on to say that her statement "runs blatantly counter to Montero's efforts to derail a community-borne effort."
"I know there is a great deal of dissatisfaction with my opponent," Guzman says. "But I respect her because she has worked hard and because she came onto the school board as the only Hispanic representative. That's hard for any of us to do. But I believe I can share in the concerns of the community and represent the voice of the community in a much fuller way."
"My opponent hasn't raised any issues because she doesn't know any," argues Montero, who, if re-elected, plans to evaluate techniques for teaching reading and to find ways to close the academic achievement gap between Anglo and minority students. "Lucia doesn't understand education. I've heard her speak, and she just says, 'Vote for me; I want to reduce the dropout rate.' She has no platform, and she has no personal or professional experience with education."
It's this no-nonsense style that has earned Montero critics who claim that she doesn't listen to the largely Hispanic community she was elected to represent in 1995.
"For the past several years, we haven't had any support from our representatives. It seems we're always in disagreement," says Rosa Linda Aguirre, the owner of Rosa Linda's Mexican Café, which sits next to Guzman's coffee shop. "Dual-language/Montessori is just one thing out of all the issues we have. When we go to speak at school-board meetings, the Mexicanos and Chicanos get treated very bad. We get stopped from speaking, and our representative does nothing. We have trust in Guzman to listen."
Guzman is taking advantage of the perception that her opponent isn't open to her constituents by vowing to make openness her top goal. Taking over the sunny, cheerful cafe was no accident. "I had this desire to go back to the neighborhood, so when the owners wanted to sell it in June, I thought buying it would be a wonderful way to establish a presence in the community," says Guzman, who welcomes voters to talk to her over a complimentary cup of coffee.
Her bid for the school board is not her first foray into the educational realm, as Montero contends. Guzman sits on Mayor Wellington Webb's education advisory council and a city-schools coordinating commission; she is involved with Escuela Tlatelolco, a private school for Spanish-speaking students; and she was a member of former governor Roy Romer's Commission on Early Childhood Care and Education. Aside from Padres Unidos and the Northwest Denver Community for Dual Language/Montessori, she also has the backing of the Latino Education Coalition and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, Mayor Webb, Attorney General Ken Salazar, city auditor Don Mares, city councilwoman Debbie Ortega and state representative Nolbert Chavez.
Montero, who also lives and works in the neighborhood, says she doesn't have any endorsements because she decided not to seek or accept any. "I don't want to be beholden to any group," she says. "I don't make decisions for interest groups; I just represent the needs of students." But Montero is not without her share of supporters. On a four-block stretch of Lowell Boulevard alone, there are more than a dozen homes with yard signs supporting Montero.
But there are also dozens of signs throughout the neighborhood promoting the dual-language/Montessori school, and Guzman says that "if the community wants a creative curriculum like dual-language/Montessori, the DPS should be open to it. Those opinions should be heard and acted upon."
In a dual-language program, half of the classes are taught in Spanish and half are taught in English. In a Montessori school, children of all ages take classes together so they can learn from one another; the teacher acts as a guide.
In the past, Montero has said that because Montessori schools require extra teacher training and begin with children as young as age three, DPS probably won't be able to fund it; the government doesn't subsidize education for children younger than five, and Montessori is already offered at Denison Elementary in southwest Denver. She also points out that students who begin Montessori in a later grade could have a difficult time adjusting to the new curriculum.
"Because there is a lot of mobility in northwest Denver, Montessori does not serve the needs of the greater community," Montero says. "And it wouldn't benefit kids to spend 50 percent of their time learning Spanish when they're struggling in English."
Montero adds that she would support a school with a Spanish-language enrichment program in which students could strengthen their native language by taking a class once a day instead of half the day. "This is a perfect example of an interest group trying to promote its ideals on the greater community. They have a myopic way of looking at things. They only have two items on their agenda: the new school and bilingual education."
The earliest the Board of Education could vote on the curriculum for the new school is October 21. But parents who were at first frustrated by the delayed vote are now hoping the board will miss this deadline as well. Besides Guzman, another candidate in favor of dual-language/Montessori is now running for a position on the school board.
James Mejia, who is the deputy director of Mayor Webb's Office of Economic Development and International Trade, wants the at-large seat currently held by Laura Lefkowits. "The DPS has been asking parents and the community to be involved in education for years. Here is a true case where a community has gotten involved and researched an issue," he says. "They have hundreds of supporters, yet when they come to the board, it seems they haven't been heard."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.