Colorado, Bilingual Education and Civil Rights

As one Colorado district cuts back its biliteracy program, questions are raised about possible civil rights violations. 

The national teacher shortage has hit Colorado hard. Since 2000, the state’s average teacher pay has dipped 15 percent, leaving Colorado ranking fifth among the lowest teacher salaries in the country. Moreover, school districts in low-income urban and rural districts have even more difficulty attracting highly qualified teachers. So at Adams 14, a school district nestled north of Denver in Commerce City, Colorado, where the majority of students are low-income and lack fluency in English, school administrators have compensated for the shortage in part by partnering with the University of Colorado’s BUENO Center, which offers degrees and certificates in bilingual education programs at a reduced cost.

The center also advocates for culturally and linguistically diverse students, families, and educators and helps train the district’s elementary school teachers to instruct English-language learners using an English-Spanish biliteracy program instituted three years ago in the wake of complaints about how the district interacted with Latino parents.

But Dr. Javier Abrego, the Adams 14 superintendent, now intends to hit the “pause button” to re-evaluate the program, citing a shortage of qualified teachers as one of the reasons when he first announced the decision last winter. But teachers, parents and local residents have expressed concern that the real goal is to slowly phase out Spanish in district classrooms—where more than half of the students are not native English speakers—as administrators continue on what some residents see as a crusade to curtail a biliteracy program that nowserves students in kindergarten through third grade.

“Technically speaking, there’s a lack,” says Jorge García, the executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education, referring to the teacher shortage. “But the reality is that what there’s a lack of is will. They [could] say,‘Well, there’s a lack of qualified math teachers, so we’re going to eliminate our math program,’” García adds. “You don’t hear them saying that; that’s what makes it an excuse.”  

Some parents and educators also worry that the move has echoes in the district’s painful anti-Hispanic past. But parents want the district to uphold its commitment to bilingual education—and they are willing to do whatever needs to be done, even if it means cleaning house at the school district headquarters.

In 1974, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Lau v. Nichols that public schools have an obligation to provide students instruction in their native language, arguing that failure to do so “denies them a meaningful opportunity to participate in the public educational program, and thus violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Yet more 40 years later, American public schools continue to fall short in educating English-language learners. Nationwide, there are about five million English-language learners; in Colorado alone, 11.6 percent—or more than 100,000 students—lack fluency in English. Adams 14 has the highest percentage of English-language learners in the state; 48 percent of the district’s students are still learning English, according to the Colorado Department of Education. 

Bilingual instruction is the most effective avenue to help English language learners excel academically. Paired literacy, a method of bilingual instruction that allows students to develop their skills in both English and their native language simultaneously, is not only more effective than English-only instruction, but also helps students more than traditional bilingual education programs that only allow students develop their skills in one language at a time, for fear that learning two languages at once could overload a student and inhibit progress. Despite that fear, data shows that students in paired literacy classrooms score significantly better on both Spanish and English reading and writing assessments.

To bridge this gap, and to address a 2014 Colorado Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights report that found that the district “created and maintained a hostile environment toward Hispanic individuals in the District” and failed to effectively communicate with Spanish-speaking parents, Adams 14 partnered with researchers at the BUENO Center to offer “Literacy Squared,” a comprehensive bilingual education program for elementary schoolers. The program was designed to help students from kindergarten through fifth grade develop literacy skills in both Spanish and English. 

But biliteracy isn’t just an issue of education, it’s an issue of equity. The need for bilingual education in the district is immense: Half of its students aren’t fluent in English: 83 percent of students are Hispanic, and 85 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. 

The move to rescind “Literacy Squared” happened at the same time as other questionable moves, such as doing away with parent-teacher conferences in exchange for an online platform (even though some families cannot afford computers) and limiting recess time for students.

In an April letter to the community, Superintendent Abrego said the district decided to suspend its contract with the BUENO Center until the district can “conduct a thorough review of our ELD [English Language Development] programming across the district.” The district will still have biliteracy classrooms from kindergarten until third grade but it will no longer use the BUENO Center’s program, Abrego said. Yet fourth- and fifth-graders never participated in the program and officials now say that they have no plans to expand biliteracy to those grades. Abrego added that he’s taking action because he is “not convinced that the current system is working as it should,” citing Literacy Squared’s goal of students “becoming biliterate better, not faster.”

“We believe that [paired literacy] is indeed a sound approach, but unfortunately, we have instead felt the push to make this happen faster, rather than better,” Abregosaid, alluding to another issue that may have played into his decision: The district is now in its seventh year on the accountability clock in Colorado and could face state sanctions this year if it doesn’t showcase hefty improvements, particularly when it comes tostudent test scores. 

But according to data collected by the BUENO Center, 42 percent of limited English-proficient third graders in the biliteracy program were meeting benchmark requirements on the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (known as DIBELS) test, which measures literacy skills in elementary school students. Adams 14’s English-language learners have plenty of room for improvement, but the limited English-proficient students in English-only classrooms met benchmark requirements on the same exam only 29 percent of the time. 

Meanwhile, Abrego himself has come in for criticism. The superintendent has nearly three decades of experience working in education in Chicago and Arizona.During his tenure as superintendent in the Morenci Unified School District in Morenci, Arizona, a small mining town on the eastern edge of the state, the district’s ranking improved from a “C” to an “A” and test scores went up. For the underperforming Adams 14 district, that was a major selling point. 

But Abrego’s experience in Arizona now troubles residents. He spent almost a decade in the only state in the country that prohibits bilingual education, and parents and other local residents are now concerned that Abrego’s track record doesn’t align well with supporting effective bilingual instruction.

Perhaps the most revealing development in the biliteracy program controversy is that it has reignited concerns about anti-Hispanic discrimination in the district. In early March, Dr. Lucinda Soltero-González, the district’s English-language development and biliteracy coordinator, resigned during the public comment session at a district board of education meeting, claiming that her work was being sabotaged by the district’s chief academic officer. Soltero-González said that the academic officer intentionally excluded her from meetings, decision making, and district trainings.

“The culture of fear and retaliation created by the current district administration toward Latino staff and families is driving great educators out of the district,” Soltero-González told the board. “In order to protect my health and my emotional well-being, and that of my family, I am forced to resign. Quite honestly, in my opinion, I'm being fired.”

Soltero-González’s comments struck a chord with residents who remember that the 2014 Office for Civil Rights report that detailed numerous occasions of discrimination against students and staff, including one principal yelling at monolingual kindergarteners who asked for assistance and food in Spanish. Another teacher was accused of telling students they could “go back to Mexico.” School administrators admitted that teachers who spoke in strongly accented English received negative evaluations. They also harassed Spanish-speaking teachers in front of their students if they refused to resign. Principals and other administrators also did not allow teachers to communicate with parents in Spanish under any circumstances. These actions, district employees admitted, were part of a goal to “eradicate” the native language. 

These incidents have led some educators and residents to believe that what’s really driving the shortage of teachers in Adams 14—particularly in the case of Latino teachers—is this environment. “They’re not going to have the teachers if they mistreat the teachers they have,” Dr. Kathy Escamilla, a researcher at the University of Colorado’s BUENO Center, says. “We can recruit teachers for you, but we’re not going to be able to recruit teachers if they leave as fast as they get there because the environment is hostile.”

The once bright outlook for biliteracy education in Commerce City has faded. In the early years of the agreement, the BUENO Center’s partnership helped Adams 14 expand bilingual instruction and train morestaff who were committed to the program. But the current lack of support for a comprehensive dual-language program for all studentshas alarmed educators and civil rights advocates alike. “Civil rights are again being denied,” says García of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Everything that, as a society, we are based on is being thrown out the window in that district.”

Parents in the district, particularly those who are undocumented, feel powerless in a community characterized by the “culture of fear” Soltero-Gonzáles described in her remarks to the district board of education. “They think they’re going to be pointed at and singled out and the migras are going to be called the next day, so we’re there to stand and let them know we’re there with you, to fight with you,” says Joanna Rosa-Saenz, a Denver community organizer who runs Adams 14 Community Advocating for Bilingual Education (ACABE). “We're trying to change that culture of fear,” Rosa-Saenz says.

When parents raised concerns about the hostile climate during first public forum in the district over two years ago, Abrego challenged the community to hold him accountable. Abrego told parents to “get rid of me” if he did not measure up.The community outcry signals a willingness tohold Abrego accountable and fight for the biliteracy program. Parents and organizers have now threatened to petition to recall members of the board if Abrego isn’t replaced.

However, in mid-April, a majority of the school board sent strong signals about their position on Abrego—and about the path he’s taken on bilingual education. The board’s members voted three to two to increase the superintendent’s salary from $165,000 to $169,125 and add a $25,000 bonus to his retirement account.