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Judge OKs plan for Denver English learners

Updated: In a hearing that lacked the drama of the one preceding it, U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch Monday gave his stamp of approval to a “modified consent decree” dictating how English language learners in Denver Public Schools are taught.

The revised plan clarifies how parents or guardians may choose services for their ELL students, provides a new approach to training teachers of the district’s roughly 36,000 ELL students, ensures that parents or guardians from different language groups receive translations of important school communications, sets processes for placement of ELL students in special education and improves DPS’s self-evaluation processes.

It also shifts the educational focus to a model where students receive transitional native language instruction in key subject areas while they simultaneously learn English. All three parties encouraged the judge to sign off on it.

Monday’s hearing was to determine whether the judge would accept changes made to a consent decree stemming from the desegregation lawsuit in the 1970s. The first consent decree was issued in 1984. Matsch has overseen it ever since and pledged to continue tracking its progress. It was last significantly modified in 1999. The new version has a three-year timeline.

“I don’t intend to sign off and say good luck,” Matsch said. “My role will continue.”

The Congress of Hispanic Educators (CHE), an original plaintiff in the case, DPS and the U.S. Department of Justice have worked for two-and-a-half years to negotiate revisions to the document.

The hearing was a continuation of one in January in which members of the board minority – along with three former Denver school board members — raised last minute concerns about the decree and effectively held up the process.

That delay prompted several board sessions to work out details, such as who would monitor the district’s progress toward ensuring the decree was followed.

“This is a very positive step forward for Denver,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said after the hearing. “This has been such a collaborative process. We look forward to moving our kids forward.”

Considering that 40 percent of the district’s students speak a language other than English at home, he said he recognized “how important improvement in educational outcomes of ELLs is to the success of the district.”

School board backs revised plan

Unlike January’s hearing, in which it became clear the school board was very divided over the details of the decree and the process of how it was revised, this time the parties made it clear the school board unanimously backed the changes.

After the hearing, DPS board member Andrea Merida said she was excited the board was “able to come together” around the decree. In January, she and board colleagues Arturo Jimenez and Jeannie Kaplan wrote a letter to the judge in which they complained that they were not given ample opportunity to fully discuss and digest the contents of the revised decree.

The January letter from Merida, Kaplan and Jimenez also criticized the district’s reform agenda as something that has “systematically segregated our public schools by race, socioeconomic status and English proficiency.” They also raised concerns that many of the district’s most highly qualified teachers have been “pushed out of the district, only to be supplanted by itinerant, short-term teachers recruited by organizations such as Teach for America.”

However, Matsch did not agree to their request to re-open negotiations and the criticisms all but disappeared by Monday’s court hearing.

Merida said the revised decree calls upon the Board of Education to drive policy that will enforce the consent decree. Some of these discussions will be covered as the board updates the Denver Plan; others may occur separately. Merida said she is working on a schedule to address necessary policy changes.

Her one concern remained that parents will not be able to opt a child out of the decree, even if the parent is highly educated and providing a supportive home environment where English proficiency might come more readily. However, she said board policy will be created to provide an appeals process.

Debate over significance of changes since 1999

DPS attorney Laurel Pyke Malson said the philosophy behind the decree “remains the same” as the 1999 version, along with the approach to educating English language learners.

But three former members of the Denver school board vehemently disagree with that assessment and let the judge know it by filing several amicus briefs.

Rita Montero, Laura Lefkowits and Sharon Macdonald rolled up their sleeves and worked to get updated provisions in 1999. They argue that the 2012 update could result in students learning in Spanish for their entire academic careers.

“This differs significantly from the 1999 order,” Lefkowits said after the hearing. “The point of the 1999 order was to ensure kids transitioned into the mainstream as quickly as possible. This one does the opposite…They can be taught in Spanish their entire academic career. It does not set up benchmarks or targets that we had in 1999 about how quickly kids should transition.”

The former board members also complained that the updated decree “allows for unqualified teachers to teach kids” by allowing teachers in training to handle ELL students. In addition, they say the updated consent decree doesn’t give parents a provision to opt out of services. So, Lefkowits said, if a Spanish-speaking grandmother lives in a home but the parents are second generation, their child would still fall under the decree requirements for up to 30 day – during which time Lefkowits argues the student could lose valuable instructional time.

“We think that this new decree is designed to keep kids in the program longer,” Lefkowits said, noting that Latino parents she knows want their children to learn English.

Lefkowits also said there is a different process for students who speak Vietnamese or other languages. Paraprofessionals work with those students in supported English instruction.

But none of those issues were raised during Monday’s court hearing.

Instead, representatives of DPS and CHE focused on changes that incorporate new best practices in teaching these students, changing testing protocols, more data collection and accountability measures, additional competency-based assessments and specifically include charter schools in the mix.

“Denver Public Schools has to take responsibility [to] make sure charter schools are serving the needs of the ELL population,” Roger Rice, attorney for CHE, said.

As always, ELL students covered by the decree can receive services outlined in the decree for “as long as a student needed them.” Under the changes, students should be able to tap into the services earlier. Once a student tests out of the system, the district will continue to oversee the student’s progress for two years to ensure English language proficiency has been achieved.

Process outlined to name monitor

Malson said recent revisions spell out how the parties in the case will move forward with selecting a monitor to track the district’s progress in terms of the consent decree requirements. The request for a monitor was also one of the recommendations by the three former and current board members.

Malson said the goal was for the three parties to come up with a list of no more than five names by the end of May. Matsch, however, did not seem pleased that he would have to select the monitor since his professional background is not in education.

The selected monitor will receive and review reports on elements outlined in the decree and participate in “follow-up discussions as well with the parties,” Malson said.

Matsch also questioned whether the revised decree includes requirements under federal No Child Left Behind legislation.

Whitney Pellegrino, attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice, said the decree does not tie directly to NCLB, but that her office did share the document with counsel from the U.S. Department of Education to make sure that none of the requirements in the decree conflict with NCLB provisions.

Rice said the decree is an improvement over the 1999 version.

“Students will be learning English from day one,” Rice said.

He specified improvements to teacher training as well for teachers of ELL students, noting that there would be “less clock hours” and more evaluation of “how teachers [are] doing in the classroom.”

In addition, there will be more scrutiny of principals and their supervisors.

“Overall, I think this is a real step forward,” Rice said.

Matsch asked to what degree technology would be incorporated into student learning under the decree, after acknowledging he was personally fascinated by the growing role of technology in schools after observing the education of his grandchildren.

Susana Cordova, Denver’s chief academic officer, cited a new pilot, called Imagine Learning English, which is software geared toward elementary school students, which provides native language supported in 11 languages; while primary instruction is in English. The student logs into a personalized account so that content can be personalized to that student’s ability level. Meanwhile, progress reports are automatically generated for teachers.

Modified Consent Decree- Denver Public Schools

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