Language bill may get bipartisan stamp of approval

Zenzinger-sponsored bill likely to be signed into law

Posted 2/22/17

Foster Elementary in Arvada is one of six dual language elementary school in the Jefferson County School District, teaching students both English- and Spanish-language skills. But even if the students from that program continue their language …

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Language bill may get bipartisan stamp of approval

Zenzinger-sponsored bill likely to be signed into law

Posted

Foster Elementary in Arvada is one of six dual language elementary school in the Jefferson County School District, teaching students both English- and Spanish-language skills. But even if the students from that program continue their language studies throughout middle and high school, mastering two languages as they apply for jobs and colleges, their high school diplomas look the same as everyone else’s.

A bipartisan bill that might receive approval from the Colorado House of Representatives in the coming days could change that, representing a win for language-learning students by making Colorado the 22nd state to approve the addition of a special bilingual seal on high school diplomas.

“It really just sets the standard across the state for what you need to show that you are bilingual,” said Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, one of the bill’s primary sponsors. “It ensures employers that they know what they’re getting. Colleges, too.”

The bill’s other Senate sponsor is Kevin Priola, R-Henderson. In the House, the bill is sponsored by Democrat Millie Hamner from Summit County and James Wilson, R-Salida.

Last year, the bill passed the State House only to see it stall out in the Senate. Zenzinger, who was elected to the Senate in November said that since the bill has already passed the Senate “nearly unanimously,” and has bipartisan support, it should have no problem passing the House before the end of this legislative session.

If approved, the bill would allow school districts in Colorado to add a special bilingual seal to the high school diploma of any student who shows proficiency in English, as well as a “world language,” a term that includes traditional foreign languages, American Sign Language and could even include the languages of indigenous cultures.

“We tried last year to find a way to pass this, but were disappointed,” Foster Elementary Principal Leigh Hiester said in a statement. “We are so grateful that Sen. Zenzinger stepped up and took this on for our school.”

Zenzinger said that Denver Public Schools and Eagle County had already been offering bilingual seals on their diplomas, and that her bill, at no significant cost to the state, would help set uniform standards for the entire state to follow.

"We are very much supporting the bill," said Catherine Baldwin, Jeffco school district's director for ESL/Dual Language learning.

Baldwin said Jeffco students speak 130 languages, making the bill of special interest. In addition to the six dual language elementary programs, she said Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate world language programs at the high school level offer in-school instruction in a second language, while many children have other opportunities to learn about the culture and heritage of their families outside of school as well.

According to the Amy Flynn, the district's world language coordinator, Jeffco employs roughly 170 world language teachers, and offers students opportunities to learn six languages: French, German, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese and Latin.

Baldwin said that if the bill passes, the school district would immediately begin developing a criteria for measuring all forms of language learning, to earn the bilingual seal. She said Jeffco's Board of Education would have to approve any criteria, and that the requirements could be set above and beyond the state requirements, even requiring a public service component, before the seals would be awarded to students.

"Our ideal would be graduation 2018," said Baldwin, though she acknowledged that timetable would not leave current students much time.

An accomplishment for Zenzinger

The bill’s apparent success follows defeats of several other bills in Senate committees.

Most recently, her SB17-102 was killed in the Senate Education Committee on Feb. 15. The bill would have prohibited private entities, such as standardized testing companies, from asking students questions about information that identifies the citizenship status or religion of a student or of the student’s parents or family. The bill would have also prohibited those companies from collecting, selling, using or sharing that information.

Another one of her early bills — a $4 increase in the amount of money collected for recording or filing a real estate transaction — was also defeated.

The Colorado Legislature is currently split with Republicans in control of the Senate and Democrats controlling the house. Zenzinger said that even in such a climate, she felt “a moderate voice like mine can be good” in helping to find solutions on problems that both parties recognize. One such example was on transportation, she said.

“There’s a growing consensus that we need to find some sort of new revenue source” to address infrastructure and congestion, said Zenzinger. “Whatever we do we have to make sure that it has to benefit all Coloradoans, and not just benefit us on the Front Range.”

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