Three decades after order, Denver schools still struggle to teach English

Article author: 
Yesenia Robles
Article publisher: 
The Denver Post
Article date: 
26 October 2014
Article category: 
Colorado News
Article Body: 

Three decades after federal courts ordered Denver Public Schools to better serve English learners, its efforts remain plagued by inconsistencies and a large number of students who haven't shown progress in learning the language.

The district is two years into its latest plan to educate English learners, who make up nearly 35 percent of the district's 90,000 students ...

But based on the most recent annual tests, nearly one in three of the district's English learners who have been in the system for the past two years failed to make progress on their English skills.

Students who don't adequately learn the language are more likely to drop out and less likely to graduate. In the 2012-13 school year, Colorado had a 76.9 percent graduation rate, but for students with limited English, the graduation rate was just 58.5 percent. In DPS, English learners had a 53.1 percent graduation rate, compared with the overall district's graduation rate of 61.3 percent.

"That is the crisis in America today, providing comprehensive quality education to our Latino students so that they can be successful, productive citizens as they enter the workforce," said Lorenzo Trujillo, a Denver attorney who has been involved in high-profile education court battles and follows the DPS case. "The history in the schools has been to fail these students."

For DPS, moving more English-language learners — or ELL students, as the district calls them — to English proficiency without letting them fall behind in their core classes is a key piece of improving the district's overall performance.

Data paints a mixed picture.

Denver's English learners still lag behind students who are native-English speakers. But ELL students who successfully learn the language have recorded better test scores than native-English students.

District officials cite TCAP results that show English learners in DPS perform better in reading, math and writing than ELL students in the rest of Colorado ...

All new DPS teachers are required to get certified to teach English learners, but they don't have to be bilingual ...

Today, DPS students speak one of 172 languages. About 40 percent of students speak Spanish ...

Maria Cristina Gomez, who has three children in DPS, said she likes the district's current focus on bilingual education because she wants her children to learn English — but without giving up Spanish ...

Other state data analyzed by DPS show that starting around 2010, students who do learn English and stop receiving services began to perform better on standardized tests than all students — including those who never had to learn English.

And of the total number of former English learners in the district, a larger percent end up participating in Advanced Placement or gifted and talented classrooms than the percentage of native English speakers who go into those programs ...

The 10 most common languages in the district:
Mandarin Chinese