By Sophia Vazquez

This article is part of the Road Map Youth Storytellers Project. Learn more here.

The fall breeze is starting to kick in which signals the start of a new school year. For many students, this means getting back into the swing of class schedules, reuniting with friends and wondering what the seating charts will be. For some, this is their main focus while others like Jhoselin Nava, now a 20-year-old college student, had other responsibilities to keep in mind.

As a first-generation student, Jhoselin was a main interpreter for her parents. She took the lead when it came to important school notices, medical, and legal documents. Her English needed to be strong not only to help her parents and younger siblings, but to also support her family friends. However, the emphasis on reinforcing English led to putting her native language, Spanish, on the back burner.

“Growing up, the focus was on bettering my English, and unfortunately it resulted in me losing some of my Spanish. I even see it happening now with my younger siblings. We tell them to practice their Spanish while they’re at home, but it’s harder now that they can speak English at home and at school all day.” -Jhoselin Nava

This experience may not resonate with everyone, but it is not an uncommon one. In Federal Way Public Schools, there are 107 languages in the community and among families. In fact, 22.5 percent of students are English Language Learners, and of the documented home languages, 5,298 are non-English, with Spanish accounting for 4,003 of those.

When you think of a bilingual student, do you think of someone like Jhoselin? Perhaps even a student like Christine (now also a 20-year-old college student), whose native languages include English and Korean, who went on to take Spanish classes from 8th grade through high school. During her senior year, she also took an IB self-study Korean class since one was not offered at the time.

“I chose to do that because I believe languages bridge the gaps between communities, open accessibility, and opportunities abroad.” -Christine Park

Both these students have one thing in common: they both were familiar with English as they navigated school and kept up with their native language.

But what happens when students don’t know English? When they initially relocate from another country, they are instantly thrown into a new cultural setting. On top of that, they are required to take tests and spend long days in school. All things considered, with such an environment, students cannot be expected to conventionally succeed at a standardized level, at least not from the start.

On the other hand, what would happen if these students were given the opportunity to show what they know in their native language? To be in the care of educators and staff members who have an asset based approach, and recognize the importance of integrating their native language and culture? In other words, to be fully immersed in a dual language/bicultural setting whether they are transitioning from another country or looking to strengthen their biliteracy.

So let’s take it back a few years. In 2010, the Dual Language program was being proposed for implementation at Sunnycrest Elementary. The expectation of the program is to immerse students for 50 percent of the day in the “target language” (in this case Spanish), and the other half in English; with the goal being that students will develop high proficiency in both their first and second language, while also developing positive cross-cultural attitudes, and pride in heritage. The program would be the first in the Federal Way school district, and is currently one of two.

The proposer of the program, Rudy Baca, hired Brittany Howell a decade ago with the plan to have her teach in English. In her decade working at Sunnycrest as part of the Dual Language (DL) team, she says the opportunity to empower pride in culture and language is the best part.

“What I also love about the program is it’s grassroots dynamic. Those of us who have been here from the start have had a huge part in building what it is today.” -Mrs. Howell

Yet, she also notes that the DL team has had challenges in terms of maintaining a reciprocal partnership with the district. Howell explains that although the teams can be considered experts, it’s frustrating to constantly guide the district, instead of receiving guidance themselves. She stated:

“When we are approached with initiatives, the district should have already thought through what it will mean for Dual Language, instead of treating us as an afterthought or expecting us to lay the foundation.”

One motivation behind the implementation of DL, was the value of the native language and how strengthening it will increase bilingual proficiency. Most importantly, how it can not only increase biliteracy for non-native Spanish speakers, but increase confidence and fluency for students like Jhoselin.

To fully embody this goal, the district must provide the right resources to teachers so students can reap the benefits and reach their fullest potential. In other words, if the district expects the teachers to be culturally responsive to their students, then the district should also be culturally responsive to the schools and communities they serve.

“We need more hands-on support in the classroom. It would be nice to have Bilingual para-educators, or Spanish speaking interventionists, and even the permanent addition of a dual language coach. It doesn’t make sense for only English language support to be provided in a Dual Language setting.” -Mrs. Howell

Renata Dinamarca, a kindergarten Spanish Dual Language teacher, also had suggestions for next steps from the district. She taught special education in Chile before beginning her eight year career at Sunnycrest for this program.

“What drew me to Dual Language was the opportunity to help Latine students in school. I was told that this program would be an opportunity for them to show us what they know in their native language.” -Mrs. Dinamarca

Mrs. Dinamarca appreciated the asset based approach but despite this assurance, she clarifies how it might not quite be reality. As they are only allowed to “count” the grades given for progress in English. For instance, a student may be able to show they know how to find the “main idea” in Spanish, and get a “4” on the Spanish assessment. But if they aren’t as fluent in the English assessment, they might get a “2,” and that is what is recorded in the gradebook.

The question here is, if the point of the program is to value Spanish as equally important to English, why is English fluency taking priority? It seems that the initial goals or objectives of the program need deep review and reflection as development continues. This not only includes being flexible with grading and allowing for accurate reflections of skill levels, but also providing built in planning time, and a more diverse set of Spanish texts that covers all reading levels.

Another aspect of the program is the hiring process and putting teams together. Mrs. Dinamarca and Howell both note that the Spanish teachers take on a heavier workload outside of their contract. There is a high population of Spanish-speaking families and not enough Spanish-speaking staff apart from the Dual Language team.

“It’s an inside joke between us. We avoid going down the main hallway or to the office on busy days because we are often stopped to help interpret for families or students upfront. Once it happens, it’s hard to say no in those situations because, how can you?”

The resolution to this may not only be in hiring more bilingual staff, but also in modifying the criteria for hiring Spanish teachers. Mrs. Dinamarca discussed how to be hired as a Spanish teacher, the expectation for qualifications are different than for English.

Although this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it does become a problem when native Spanish-speaking teachers are subject to losing their position if they cannot pass all the teaching certifications in English. As a student, I would have expected that there be teaching certification exams in the language intended to be taught, not just in English. Especially for a program that highlights the intention to create positive cross-cultural attitudes. Which requires educators to have a more authentic connection to the language and culture, beyond general proficiency. That way there can be more support available for families, not just with interpreting, but in making them feel seen and heard on a personal level. How can you assess this ability with a standardized exam in the language that isn’t even being taught in their classroom? Or beyond the classroom, across the school?

Ultimately, Dual Language has seen great success so far. Although they made some gains with this positive track for students and families, the Federal Way School District must continue to respond to the needs of their teachers. Again, this includes funding (for instance: curriculum materials, bilingual staff and paraeducators, compensation for interpreting and social/emotional labor etc), maintaining a reciprocal partnership with the DL teams, and reflecting on the hiring criteria. Although implementing this will take time, FWPS can be trusted to continue building on this discussion, as they have thus far, for the benefit of the families they serve.

“In an environment of high expectations, high support, and no excuses, the staff of Federal Way Public Schools will continuously learn, lead, utilize data, and collaborate to ensure our scholars have a voice, a dream, and a bright future. We believe that our scholars must have a voice, see themselves in their schooling, and be connected to the adults that teach them.” –FWPS Mission Statement and Core Belief(s)

Sophia Vazquez is a third-year student at the University of Washington, and a graduate of Federal Way Public Schools. She is committed to understanding and addressing systemic barriers impacting youth and communities, within education and beyond. Her goal is to gain experience in various kinds of media production and advocacy, and explore a blend of both in children’s entertainment and education.

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