Since a 2002 ballot initiative attempted to prohibit bilingual teaching in schools, some Colorado school districts have come a long way to accepting and even promoting bi-literacy. In a state where 10 percent of the Latino population speaks only Spanish and where another one-third are bilingual, a tipping point has been reached in some regions of the state to ensure the language is included as part of an English language learner’s and bilingual student’s education.
Not only is the Latino population the fastest growing in the state, it is also the youngest, comprising well over half of the student body in many districts, including 58 percent in Denver, the largest district in the state. Sheer population growth is not the only demographic change in the Latino community. Districts are seeing a distinct change in the ability of students to handle both languages to express their ideas. Elementary school teacher Katy Hoops calls these students “simultaneous bilinguals” and laments that teaching children like these, en masse, is new to Denver Public Schools. “Students in front of us now look different… simultaneous bilinguals… we don’t have any assessments that measure those children. We can measure in English or we can measure in Spanish, but we don’t take into account that they know both and use either at any given time.”
Hoops gives the story of a student who can name three colors in two languages and another child who knows five colors but only in English. She wonders aloud, “Do these children know more or do they know different?” Hoops worries that the way she and other bilingual teachers were trained is becoming outdated and that, “Best practices don’t apply.” She points to schedule manipulations and pulling students out for special training, all of which mean the child misses some other important aspect of the curriculum. Though she feels well supported and loves her job, Hoops notes, “This job takes longer, is harder and requires more time and resources than a regular teacher.”
Dr. Heather Riley (wife of the author) is a bilingual consultant for Denver Public Schools and points to major gains that DPS has made to serve speakers of other languages. Dr. Riley notes that DPS is under a court ordered consent decree mandating certain efforts. Still, progress these days seems to be following the spirit of the law in addition to court orders. “One area I would say is there is a bit of a pivot around data, following students more closely, and less of a sense of policing the program.” Instead, Dr. Riley observed that central administration has been more helpful with making schools aware of how they are supposed to implement and helping achieve goals. “We are doing a much better job of serving students with best practice all while following the consent decree.”
Dr. Riley credits DPS for implementing a “Seal of Bi-literacy” a notation made on a high school diploma as a demonstration of proficiency in two or more languages. The seal is considered a differentiator showing tenacity, accomplishment and/or facility with language. Just as importantly for Dr. Riley, the seal demonstrates to students and the entire school community the importance of multiple languages. “It has made a big difference and has had a direct effect on how school leaders think about bi-literacy. There is still work to be done for sure, and it should count on the School Performance Framework (how schools are evaluated), even so it provides a concrete way to honor kids who speak another language.” This spring is the fourth year of the bi-literacy seal program and Dr. Riley notes the number of applications have increased significantly since program inception. In the 2015-2016 school year, DPS awarded 195 seals of bi-literacy. That number more than doubled to 405 in the 2016-2017 school year.
While quick to praise DPS’ gains and those of neighboring district, Jefferson County, where most elementary schools offer some form of bilingual education, Dr. Riley says that not all districts are trending positive.
Adams 14, a school district in Commerce City, is only one of three other school districts to have adopted the seal of bi-literacy (Eagle and Summit Counties are the others) but their current superintendent has taken a 180 degree turn and along with the district school board, adopted measures to discontinue bilingual education past the 3rd grade. Such measures have district parents spoiling for a fight to continue education in English and Spanish. While parents have asked for bilingual education from kindergarten through 12th grade, Superintendent Dr. Javier Abrego has pushed the district to focus on assessments that are only given for English.
On their web site under the heading, “Bilingual Education” the following statement seems to indicate those learning English are considered disabled, hardly a ringing endorsement of the value of knowing multiple languages, “The appropriate referral, identification, and placement of learners who are bilingual or English Language Learners is necessary to ensure students’ civil rights as well as their free and appropriate public education aligned with the individuals with Disabilities Education Act.” Thus, the battle for language in Colorado schools continues. Adams 14 student body is majority Latino and over half the students are English language learners.
Mountain district Summit County awarded 14 seals of bi-literacy in their first year of the program, last year. The district is home to numerous families living in Summit and nearby counties that are working in the hospitality and tourism industries. The district has a growing bilingual community spurring the creation of Dillon Valley Elementary School, home to a dual language program. In 2010, the school was authorized as an International Spanish Academy through the country’s Ministry of Education.
Next week, a high school spelling bee will be held at Bruce Randolph High School, a program started a few years ago by Dr. Riley when she was an Assistant Principal there. The ever-popular Colorado elementary school spelling bee is sponsored by the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education and will take place April 7th at Kepner Middle School.