PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — Bilingual, biliterate and multicultural. Those are just some of the skills students can pick up by attending dual-language programs.
Experts say children who face new obstacles and challenges when they emigrate to the United States or learn a new language could benefit. That's where bilingual teachers in schools play a big role.
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Irene Collado is a dual language teacher and part of the International Spanish Academy at Okeeheelee Middle School, the first in the country.
"It's one of my passions to teach my language, my mother language and also the very right different cultures of the 19 countries which speak Spanish," Collado said.
She was recruited from Spain three years ago to teach. The academy provides students education in both English and Spanish.
It is backed by the Florida Department of Education and the Ministry of Education in Spain.
"We also work with grammar, vocabulary, new vocabulary that they still need to acquire, and we also do projects," Collado said. "I also take pride in watching them, you know, explain where they come from and where the families come.”
Samuel Pereira and Isabella are eighth-grade students in the academy. Both say it has improved their writing & speaking skills in Spanish while learning more about their Latino roots.
"To connect more with my culture because I was born here. I have been able to learn more about it," Samuel said.
"You can practice both your language and it is good for your future," Isabella said.
Alexandria Ayala, who is currently the only Latina who sits on the school board, represents District Two, which is predominantly Latino.
"It is so meaningful to our students. the students who already come from countries of Hispanic or Latin origin feel so heard, represented and have an ability to really grow into their culture and their history," Ayala said.
Ayala said these programs reflect the educational needs of their Spanish-speaking students. Preparing them to compete and be successful in a global society.
"Our Hispanic population of students right now is our highest percentage. We’re about 37 percent of students that we serve being the largest category and that are Hispanic and Latin backgrounds. That is not going to slow down," Ayala said. "We have a lot of movement coming into South Florida. Palm Beach County is growing at a really high rate. we want to be prepared to serve those students and their families at the highest possible level."
To accomplish that, Ayala said they are recruiting and retaining qualified teachers who can communicate with their students in their home language while teaching other students. But the pool is very competitive since other school districts around the country have similar programs.
"We traveled to San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico to work with job fairs and find educators and recruit them to come work with us," Ayala said. "We also work with H1 visas, like the program that you see that fills our ISA roles with our Spanish teachers, our teachers that come over from Spain and can work in our system. we work with different embassies in different countries to make the process smoother."
For Collado, she said it's been enriching and has grown as an educator.
"In Spain, I used to teach English as a foreign language. Now that I have experienced what it is to teach your own mother language and to talk about your culture and the culture of other Hispanic countries, I think it's going to be very hard for me to go back to my previous experience," Collado said.