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English-Language Learners at Center of Dispute in Denver

Revisions to a federal consent decree have put Denver's English-language learners in the middle of a political tussle between the district's superintendent and three school board members.

Last week, Superintendent Tom Boasberg went before a federal judge expecting to win approval for changes to a consent decree connected to a nearly 40-year-old desegregation case. The updates to Denver's consent decree center on significant changes that the school district is making to its programs for English-language learners, who make up more than one-third of the 82,000-student system. Changes to Denver's ELL programs have been taking shape for a couple of years in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Justice and a civil rights group that was one of the original plaintiffs in the desegregation lawsuit.

But three members of the school board—two of whom are Latino and bilingual—sent a letter to the judge just before the hearing raising numerous concerns about the modifications. Among other things, they contend that programs for beginning English-learners are not being provided in charter schools and some district-run schools, and that too many teachers experienced at working with ELLs have been replaced with inexperienced Teach For America recruits.

EdNews Colorado has closely tracked the ongoing negotiations and debate around Denver's effort to improve instruction and support services for its growing population of English-learners and their families. The district has sought to provide more program choices to ELL students and their parents, including transitional instruction in Spanish in some subjects and hiring more qualified bilingual staff members to teach those students. Better translation services for parents, improved identification and services for ELLs who have disabilities or who are refugees, and making instructional programs available in charter schools are also part of the broader improvement plan.

Denver school officials have been under intense scrutiny from civil rights officials in the Justice Department and the Congress of Hispanic Educators (an original plaintiff) in recent years over concerns that they were not living up to the 1999 version of the consent decree that outlined the steps the district pledged to take to better serve ELLs.

U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch, who oversees the consent decree, expressed frustration last week that the school district did not have the full support of the school board on the updates to the order and directed the parties to try and work out their differences before coming back for another hearing in April.

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