Nonprofit pushing for dual language expansion in McAllen schools

RGV PUEDE Cofounder and President Alex Stehn speaks during public comments at the McAllen ISD board meeting on Monday, Oct. 30, 2023. Stehn wishes to expand and grow the dual language program at McAllen ISD. (Omar Zapata | The Monitor)
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McALLEN — Nonprofit organization RGV PUEDE is raising concerns about whether McAllen ISD’s new leadership will continue to support the district’s dual language program and aired those concerns during a school board meeting Monday.

RGV PUEDE, or Parents United for Excellent Dual Education, also known as Padres Unidos para una Educacion Dual de Excelencia, was founded in 2016 with a mission to organize, support, improve and extend dual language bilingual education from pre-K to 12th grades across the Rio Grande Valley.

Cofounder and President Alex Stehn said the organization attended Monday’s board meeting to make their voices heard to the school board to make it a mandate for Rene Gutierrez, the lone finalist for the superintendent post, to grow the dual language program.

Gutierrez spent the last four years as superintendent for Brownsville ISD and was also previously the Edinburg CISD superintendent from 2009-19.

With Gutierrez himself being a product of a bilingual program transferring from Reynosa, Tamaulipas to McAllen ISD, he said Friday that he understands the importance of bilingual education.

At the two school districts Gutierrez was in charge of, they offered bilingual education but he said he has never been a part of a district with a dual language program.

“I’d like to learn more about dual language and see what benefits it has,” Gutierrez said. “It’s something I need to be more familiar with when I arrive there. I need to familiarize myself not only with dual language programs or bilingual education but with all the educational programs that are being implemented in the McAllen school district.”

Concern about promoting the program at local schools remains after it has been removed from several campuses prior to Gutierrez’s arrival.

Stehn, who is also a UTRGV associate professor in the philosophy department, said the last time McAllen ISD appointed a new superintendent in 2017 there were a lot of changes to the district’s dual language program.

J.A. Gonzalez was the McAllen superintendent at the time before taking the top job at the Harlingen school district in August.

In 2017, the district decreased the total of elementary schools offering the program from 20 to seven. The district also saw the first middle school dual language program the following year and the addition of a high school dual language program in 2021.

Stehn said in 2017 there was also a call to action to support and expand the program at McAllen ISD. He said more than 100 parents came to the board meeting and spoke in favor of the program.

“We want to express really clearly to the board because we kind of got burned last time, that this is important to the community,” Stehn said. “This is important to families as we don’t want any reduction in this program. In fact, we want the opposite.”

During the meeting’s public comments portion on Monday, Stehn said it was important to remind the board of the “public commitment” to “increase the percentage of students participating in dual language programs.”

“Unfortunately, recent data shows a decreasing percentage,” he added. “We are therefore petitioning the board to give McAllen’s new superintendent a clear mandate to support and grow dual language district-wide.” Dual language is a model of bilingual education that promotes bilingualism, biculturalism and biliteracy. These programs are additive bilingualism as it aims to keep the native language intact while teaching students another language.

These programs differ from bilingual programs.

Most bilingual programs are transitional and focus on students phasing out of their native language and adopting English. The ultimate goal for these programs is for students to join English speaking classes with their native language receiving little to no focus.

RGV PUEDE parent and executive director for the Texas Association for Bilingual Education, Karina Chapa, shares her experience with her daughter in the McAllen ISD dual language program on Monday, Oct. 30, 2023. (Omar Zapata | The Monitor)

McAllen ISD currently offers dual language programs at seven elementary campuses, one middle school and one high school. Students that start at one elementary school have the opportunity to continue in the dual language program at Fossum Middle School and then at Achieve Early College High School.

RGV PUEDE parent and the executive director for the Texas Association for Bilingual Education, Karina Chapa, also sounded off at Monday’s meeting. Chapa previously served as the director of the Bilingual ESL program at McAllen ISD when they first started the dual language program in 2013.

Chapa said the program started with nine elementary campuses offering it, which then expanded to feature all 20 elementary schools by 2016.

During her public comments she spoke about how having her daughter participate in the program had many academic benefits besides learning a second language.

“My daughter had to stop dual language when she went to high school,” Chapa said. “So I’m here in support of the expansion and continuation of dual language.”

Lieana Rios-Ledezma, an RGV PUEDE parent and assistant professor of practice in the Department of Bilingual and Literacy Studies, said after the meeting that her 5-year-old participates in the dual language program at McAllen ISD. Rios-Ledezma even chose to live near the school so her daughter can attend and partake in the program.

“Being bilingual is a privilege and advantage, especially in our world,” she said. “So we want her to be able to speak and communicate not only socially but academically.”

Ledezma said she wants the next superintendent to know that McAllen ISD parents are heavily invested into the dual language program and it cannot be ignored with so many bilingual students in the community.

Asked what she would do with her daughter if the dual language program was to get downsized again, Ledezma said it would be a huge inconvenience for her family and others and she would definitely consider moving her child to another school.

“We wouldn’t want to do that because we want her to grow up here in McAllen,” she said. “We know that we have an amazing bilingual community and I have the opportunity to do that. I can move but what about all the other families? We can’t just all abandon McAllen, right. So if it were to come to that yet, I have to make some very difficult choices with my husband.”

RGV PUEDE parent and executive director for the Texas Association for Bilingual Education, Karina Chapa, shares her experience with her daughter in the McAllen ISD dual language program on Monday, Oct. 30, 2023. (Omar Zapata | The Monitor)