Denver Public Schools is considering ending dual language programs at Valverde Dual Language Academy and Charles M. Schenck Community School, two of the district’s six Spanish-English immerison programs.

District officials say the program changes are aimed at stemming declines in academic performance at both schools among native English- and Spanish-speakers alike.

Some parents say that the district didn’t give the programs enough time to thrive, and that the changes would leave southwest Denver without a dual language program.

Both schools would likely house instead new Transitional Native Language Instruction programs, which provide Spanish-speaking students with instruction in their native language, supports when they are taught in English, and specific courses in English language acquisition.

Susana Cordova, the district’s chief schools officer, said DPS still supports its dual language programs, in which students receive instruction in both Spanish and English. But, she said, at Valverde and Schenck, “the implementation was not nearly as strong or robust as we’d like to see it. When we started looking at data, we had real concerns about viability of the programs.”

“We felt that the best decision was to make sure we had quality, strong first-language programming in Spanish as well as quality strong first-language programming in English for English speakers,” Cordova said.

In addition to Valverde and Schenck, the district currently has dual language programs at Academia Ana Maria Sandoval, Bryant Webster, the Denver Language School, and Valdez.

Frustrated parents

Replacing a dual language program with a native-language program would uphold the district’s legal requirement under a court-ordered agreement between it, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Congress of Hispanic Educators to provide native language instruction options for Spanish-speaking students, Cordova said.

She said that most teachers who were eligible to teach in the dual language program would still be able to teach at the schools, even if the model changes.

But at a public comment session at the DPS board meeting in January, Schenck parent Gregoria Salcedo told district officials that she was frustrated by what had seemed like half-hearted implementation of the dual language program.

“Why was this decision made? Why do they support schools like Valdez but not us? Why don’t you support dual language at [Schnck]?” Salceda said. “We feel the district disrespected us.”

Parent Martha Juarez said that while she knew the school had earned red, the lowest category on the district’s school performance framework, “the reason it’s in red is because of all the changes you have done. I feel there is a lot of causes, and it’s because you don’t let a specific program develop in a school.”

The district’s other dual language programs are all several miles away, in other quadrants of the city. Cordova said the district is not considering changing programs at those schools. “The dual-language programs we have in other parts of the city are showing far greater academic gains.”

DPS is under consistent pressure to meet the educational needs of its nearly-30,000 English language learners, especially in southwest Denver, where more than 80 percent of students are Latino and many are English language learners. Earlier this school year, plans to place two charter schools in nearby Kepner Middle School drew fire from advocates who were concerned the district would not offer appropriate native language instruction to Spanish-speaking middle schoolers in the Southwest.

Academic struggles

Students at both schools have not fared well on state standardized tests. Schenck, where 98 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced price lunch and 76.4 percent are English language learners, has alternated between red and yellow rankings—the two lowest possibile—in recent years, and last year was ranked red on the district’s performance scorecard.

Fewer than a quarter of its students scored proficient or advanced on last year’s state standardized tests in reading or math. The school’s native English-speakers scored ten or more percentage points worse than their native Spanish speaking peers—a reversal of trends in the district as a whole.

Declining enrollment is also an issue at Schenck: Enrollment has dropped from 670 in 2011 to 500 in the current school year.

Valverde, where nearly 60 percent of the school’s 400 students are English language learners and 98.5 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, was also given the lowest ranking on the district’s performance framework. Its rating has been steadily declining over the past five years, and its English-speaking students also scored lower than English language learners on reading and writing tests.

Valverde’s former principal announced in September that she would leave due to the school’s stagnant test scores. The school has an interim principal and will have a new permanent leader next year.

“We want to be responsive to all of our parents, but as we look at performance level in both schools–frankly we’re not doing well enough by any students in these schools,” Cordova said.

DPS officials say the decision to change the programs at Valverde and Schenck is not yet final.