Immersion or segregation? |

Immersion or segregation?

Veronica Whitney
Vail Daily/Melinda KruseStudents of English as a Second Language take instruction Wednesday at Edwards Elementary School. At some Eagle County schools, 60 percent of the student body is Hispanic.

“I was thrown at Red Sandstone (Elementary School) and I never felt I was a par of the English-speaking students,” said Cuevas, a teacher at Eagle Valley High School. “Then, when I went to college and studied Spanish, they asked me to conjugate a verb … and I couldn’t do it.”

Stories similar to Cuevas’ is what opponents to Amendment 31 are trying to avoid. If voters in Colorado pass the proposed change to the state Constitution in November, bilingual and dual-immersion programs – most of them available in Eagle County schools – will be dismantled.

After a three-hour meeting last week, members of the Eagle County School Board agreed to consider a resolution against Amendment 31, to be presented Wednesday. Several school boards across the state, including those of Denver, the Roaring Fork Valley, Boulder, Poudre and Jefferson County, already have urged voters to reject Amendment 31.

“We’ve been successful in meshing kids together here,” said Keith Thompson of Edwards, a member of the Eagle County School Board. “This Amendment 31 seems segregating. Also, the initiative takes away local control.”

The endangered programs include ESL, or English as a Second Language, SLA, or Second Language Acquisition, and DL, or Dual Language.

“We need to understand that second-language learning takes longer and is more complex than what we’ve been led to believe,” said Jane Donnelly, SLA coordinator with the Eagle County School District.

It takes non-English speaking students between five and seven years of bilingual education to be proficient in reading, math and language, Donnelly added.

Amendment 31 is a proposed change to the Colorado Constitution that would mandate non-English-language learners attend regular classrooms after one year of intensive instruction conducted in English. The following year they would be placed in a mainstream classroom. Those who are still not ready for the transition could stay another year in the intensive instruction class. Currently, there’s no time limit for bilingual classes; a student can stay in them as needed.

“If passed, this initiative will segregate kids for one to two years,” said Emily Larson, Title VII grant coordinator for Edwards Elementary School.

“Now they spend half the time in mainstream classes. Our philosophy is integration.”

A school day for first- and second-grade non-English speakers in local schools this year consists of 35 percent of the classes in Spanish and 65 percent in English. In fifth grade, the school day is split differently, with 10 percent of classes in Spanish and 90 percent in English, Donnelly said.

“A recent study involving 210,000 student records found that long-term bilingual education develops strong literacy both in English and Spanish,” Donnelly said. “The best predictor of academic success is knowledge of a native language.”

Points of view

Rita Montero, the Colorado resident sponsor of Amendment 31, said sheltering English immersion programs is the best way to teach English.

“The complaint we hear over and over again is that Hispanics don’t get enough English instruction,” said Montero, a former member of the Board of Education for the Denver Public School District. “Parents of English-speaking students complain that having the non-English speaking students in and out of the class diverts teacher’s attention.”

Data supporting Amendment 31 includes test scores in California after a similar initiative passed in 1998, Montero said.

Proposition 227 replaced bilingual education in California with a statewide system with one year of English-immersion instruction.

“Since the initiative’s inception, test scores have increased more than two times compared to those children who stayed in bilingual programs,” Montero said.

Improvements in teaching, however, is an argument to explain why scores increased in California since the passage of Proposition 227.

For example, in California SAT9 results for English reading, grades two through six, show a nearly identical gain between 1998 and 2000 for both the Limited-English-Proficient students, or LEP, and English-proficient students.

This argument supports Dr. Kenji Hakuta’s belief that while bilingual education shows slightly better success than English-only, the key to helping kids learn English is to improve their schools.

Hakuta, who teaches and does research at the Stanford University School of Education, has done extensive research on how language is learned.

“The one-size-fits-all concept doesn’t work when it comes to learning a second language,” said Jorge Garcia of English Plus, a grassroots group opposing Amendment 31.

Emily Larson said the danger of Amendment 31 is that parents and educators wouldn’t have a choice in how they want their kids to learn. In Eagle County, where Hispanic students comprise 60 percent of the student body, that could mean taking away local control of bilingual and dual-language programs, said Barbara Schierkolk, chairman of the school board.

“If Amendment 31 passes, that could leave four English-speaking students per class at Edwards Elementary,” Schierkolk said. “I think Amendment 31 has raised the issue that we need to look at our bilingual programs. And one of the things the amendment does is take away control from us to work in these programs.

“No matter what happens with Amendment 31 in November, we’ll go forward with looking at how to improve our bilingual programs.”

Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at

Support Local Journalism