The Other 60 Percent

Campaign invites uncomfortable conversations

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has launched a campaign to get young people, parents, schools, policy makers and community groups to start talking about something likely to make many of them squirm.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has released a 64-page document exploring strategies for improving youth sexual health.

Dubbed Youth Sexual Health in Colorado: A Call to Action, the campaign hopes to encourage youths to delay sexual activity and to use condoms and contraception consistently and correctly if they are engaged in sexual activity.

But beyond that, organizers hope it ultimately results in giving more Colorado teens access to supportive relationships that will allow them to finish their educations and achieve their economic and career goals.

“Youth. Sex. This topic can turn off a lot of people,” said Anne-Marie Braga, director of adolescent health initiatives for CDPHE. “I can’t say enough about our department really taking leadership on this. It’s time to normalize this issue and do something about it.”

CDPHE has released a 64-page booklet summarizing the state of youth sexual health in Colorado and providing specific strategies for young people, their families, their communities and state policy makers to follow to have a positive impact on the issue.

Developing the Call to Action involved convening informal focus groups of parents and of youth around the state. The youth were asked to share their experiences about what they want regarding their sexual health, what works and what doesn’t. Parents and adult mentors were asked for their perspectives. In addition, more than 700 people responded to a statewide survey.

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The young people expressed a strong desire for comprehensive ongoing sex education in school that would help them figure out how to access appropriate information and resources. Parents indicated that they weren’t always sure they had the most reliable information, and even if they did, they weren’t always comfortable sharing that information with their children.

The interviews also underscored the need for young people to have trusted adults to whom they can turn – parents, yes, but other adult mentors as well. Failure to provide that can have devastating long-term consequences.

“Teen pregnancy and sexual health is dear to my heart,” said Sen. Irene Aguilar, a Denver Democrat and a physician practicing at Denver Health’s Westside Family Health Center, who spoke at the Oct. 27 kickoff for the Call to Action, held at the Denver Museum of Science and Nature.

“I know firsthand what a difference it can make to be educated about sexuality and to be able to take control of that. Teens don’t want adults telling them what to do, but they need information to make their own decisions,” she said.

“If someone has uncomfortable situations happening around sexuality, it can lead to depression or suicide,” Aguilar said. “An unwanted pregnancy can change the trajectory of your whole life. Teens who get pregnant are more likely than others not to finish high school and to live in poverty, as are their children. So this impacts not only you now, but future generations.”

“Thank you for this groundbreaking work,” she told organizers, “and thank you for pushing those lazy adults into talking about things they don’t want to talk about,” she told the young people gathered at the kickoff.

Rep. Cindy Acree, an Aurora Republican considered one of the legislature’s experts in health care policy, was unable to attend the kickoff on Saturday, but she sent greetings and shared her own experience with teen pregnancy. Her daughter is a single, teenage mother who lives with Acree. “She works two jobs, has little social life and no money to do extra things,” Acree said in her prepared remarks. “Suddenly she is grown up and dealing with all these issues.”

Youth sexual health involves more than simply avoiding pregnancy or catching a sexually-transmitted disease, say organizers. A sexually healthy person is able to decide for himself or herself when to engage in a sexual relationship, free from oppression, exploitation and abuse. A sexually healthy person knows how to access information and can talk comfortably with health care providers, as well as family and friends.

Scarlett Jimenez, a student at Aurora’s Hinkley High School, is one of the youth leaders advising the state on youth sexual health.

In Colorado, teen birth rates have fallen steadily over the past decade, down nearly 37 percent since 1992. This mirrors what has happened nationwide. In addition, sexual activity among young people is slightly less than the national average. According to the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, nearly 40 percent of all Colorado high schoolers report having had sex at some point.

But not all the news is good. Condom use is spotty, rates of chlamydia are increasing and sexual violence is on the rise.

“On average, 17 babies are born to teenagers in Colorado every day – about one baby every 84 minutes,” said Scarlett Jimenez, a senior at Aurora’s Hinkley High School, and one of the young people serving as advisors to the Call to Action campaign. Jimenez said she’s also witnessed hate and bullying around sexuality, and she called on schools to provide more comprehensive sex education, which she said would decrease bullying.

Elaine Gantz Berman, a member of the state Board of Education, said that lawmakers can pass enlightened, well-meaning policies, but unless those policies are implemented, little will change.

“We have a comprehensive sex education policy in this state,” she said. “Is it being implemented in every district? Absolutely not. We need to hold districts’ feet to the fire to make sure they’re implementing these standards.”

Berman suggested that it might be possible to tie youth sexual health to initiatives related to childhood obesity, an issue around which there is tremendous interest and funding. “Maybe there are ways we can combine the importance of nutrition, physical activity and health into comprehensive sex education. We need to be creative as policy makers,” she said.

Frequently asked

There are lots of ways schools teach English learners. Here’s how it works.

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Lindsey Erisman works with 6-year-old students in an English Language Acquisition class at Denver's Cole Arts & Science Academy.

School district officials in Westminster this year signed an agreement with federal officials to change how they educate students who are learning English as a second language.

Similar agreements have also shaped how districts in Denver, Aurora, Adams 14, and Adams 12 educate their English language learner students. But many people, including parents and district insiders, may still have questions about the various complicated programs and requirements.

Although many of the language-education agreements are years old, most of the issues haven’t been resolved. In Adams 14, for instance, parents and advocates have protested a district decision to stop biliteracy programming, and have questioned the district’s compliance with its agreement to better serve English learners. District officials have pointed out that their obligation is teaching students English, not making them bilingual.

Now at least one charter school, KIPP, is looking to fill in that programming gap. Many other states have had a number of biliteracy and other bilingual programs at various schools for years, but Colorado has only more recently started to follow those trends.

So what’s the difference between the various language programs and services? And what is required by law and what isn’t? The following questions and answers might help clarify some of those questions as you follow the news around these issues.

Which students are designated as English language learners? Do parents get to decide, or do schools decide?

Federal guidance requires school districts have some way to identify English learners. Most commonly, districts survey all parents at school registration about their home language and the student’s first language. If that survey finds there might be an influence of another language at home, the student must be assessed to determine fluency in English. While the district has to identify all students who aren’t fluent in English as language learners, parents in Colorado can choose to waive the federally required services for their children. If so, the district doesn’t have to provide special services, but would still be required to monitor that the student is making progress toward acquiring English.

What educational rights do English language learners have?

English language learners have specific rights under the Lau v. Nichols Supreme Court case from 1974 and the subsequent Castañeda standards released in 1981. State laws also outline some requirements for school districts. Specifically, school districts must provide programs for all identified language learners to give them the opportunity to learn English and to access a comprehensive curriculum. The government does not state what that program should be, but provides some standards requiring that any program is theoretically sound and has a research base to support it. The program has to have qualified teachers, and a way to demonstrate that students are making progress in learning English and their academic content. While the civil rights officials consider many details to verify compliance, simply put, school districts have the legal obligation to identify students, serve them in a sound program, and monitor their progress.

What is the difference between bilingual education and “ELL services?”

Bilingual education (which is the program that has the most support for efficacy from the research community) offers students opportunities to learn in their native language while they are learning English. Bilingual programs can vary from short-term, or early-exit programs, to more longer-term developmental programs.

English language learner services do not need to provide opportunities for students to learn in the native language. Most commonly these services only offer English language development classes (generally 45 minutes per day). All other content instruction is offered only in English. ELL services are not bilingual.

What is English language development?

English language development must be a part of any program or model a district or school adopts. It is the class time when students are taught the English language. The government wants to see that English learners are given a dedicated time to learn English, when they are not competing with native English speakers. That means, often, English language development is offered as a time when students are pulled out of class to practice English, or as a special elective period students must take without their English-speaking peers.

The structure of this time period, who has access to it, or who teaches it, are areas commonly cited as problems by the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Do students who are identified as English language learners retain that designation forever? What does it mean to be an “exited ELL?”

They’re not supposed to. Students who are English learners should be tested at least once a year to determine their English proficiency. When a student reaches a high enough level, school staff must determine if the student is now fluent in English. If so, the student becomes an “exited ELL.” The law requires districts to monitor for two years students who have exited and are no longer receiving services. There are, however, students who do not reach English fluency before graduating or leaving school.

What is the difference between being bilingual and being biliterate?

Bilingual generally refers to oral language in that bilingual people can understand and speak two languages but may not be able to read and write in those languages. Biliterate refers to being able to understand, speak, read, and write in two languages. Many people are bilingual but not biliterate. Biliteracy is considered to be a higher form of bilingualism.

What is the difference between dual language and biliteracy models?

Dual language and biliteracy models share many common components. Both models usually have biliteracy as their end goal for students. Dual language models may be “one-way” or “two-way.” One-way programs generally serve students who are designated as English language learners (also sometimes called emerging bilinguals). Two-way dual language programs include students who are native English speakers. The only major difference is that biliteracy models focus on using two languages in the language arts or literacy classes (reading and writing in two languages) whereas dual language focuses on using two languages across the entire school day’s curriculum.

What is an immersion model?

Immersion models traditionally are thought of as referring to programs primarily intended for students from the dominant language population to learn a second language. This is different from programs meant to teach English.

While native English students can choose whether or not to learn a second language, students who are English language learners do not have a choice in learning English.

What is sheltered instruction?

This type of instruction takes place in non-dual language schools, during regular content classes (such as math or science), and it’s one way schools try to make the content understandable to students who aren’t yet fluent in English.

This is especially common in schools where English learners speak a variety of languages. Crawford Elementary in Aurora, for instance, has had up to 35 different languages represented among its approximately 560 students. If there aren’t enough students who speak a common first language and also a teacher who speaks the same language as those students, then schools must teach through English, while making the English as accessible as possible.

In practice, this means an English-speaking teacher would use sheltered instruction techniques to help all children understand the lessons such as, physical props, a focus on building vocabulary, and sentence stems.

Denver designates schools as TNLI schools. What does that mean?

Denver created the TNLI label in 1999 to set the district apart from other bilingual program models. TNLI stands for Transitional Native Language Instruction. The Denver TNLI program is a transitional bilingual education program model with a label created just for Denver. It’s a model where instruction in Spanish is used to help students learn while they’re acquiring English, but still has a goal of making students fluent in English as soon as possible, at which point students move into mainstream English classrooms.

Is one of these models best suited for English learners?

Among researchers, it is commonly accepted that dual language or biliteracy models are the most effective to put English learners on par with their native speaking peers, in the long run.

Why do teachers have to be trained specifically to teach this population of students? What are teachers learning?

Educators and researchers say that teachers need to learn the differences and similarities between learning in one language and learning bilingually. Teachers need to learn about literacy methodology and how teaching literacy in Spanish (for example) is the same and different as teaching literacy in English. They have to learn how to teach English language development to students who are beginning to learn English (it is different than just teaching in English). These trainings also help teachers learn about cultural similarities and differences and about sources of culture conflict. Teachers need to be able to teach children English; how to use English to learn; and how the English language works. In bilingual settings teachers need to learn those three things for two languages. In short, the training needed to be a bilingual teacher is quite different. Colorado will soon require some of this training for all teachers.

What are the challenges districts have in offering these different programs? How do schools decide which type of model to offer?

The demographics of a district’s student population, and district politics play a large part in helping a district decide what model or program to use. Resources can also be a factor in deciding how to structure services or what programs to offer. In Adams 14, when the district leadership decided to pause the roll out of a biliteracy program, the district cited a lack of qualified bilingual teachers, among other things.

In Westminster, the school district’s unique competency-based approach, which removes grade levels and seeks to personalize instruction, was cited as a reason why the district had structured its English language development the way it had before the investigation by the Office for Civil Rights sought to change it.

Does Colorado provide guidance or oversight for how districts are doing this work?

The Colorado Department of Education offers some guidance for districts, but oversight of the districts’ compliance with what is required is limited. In practice, when parents suspect their children aren’t educated well, they have filed complaints with the federal government. In Denver, the complaints went through the Department of Justice. Investigations of most other metro-area districts have been conducted by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.