PSJA’s dual language program continues to flourish and impact community

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PHARR — Over the past 25 years, PSJA ISD has established the gold standard for a dual language program offering classes district-wide with over 14,000 elementary, middle and high school students in the program that is expecting its largest graduating cohort this semester.

Started in 1995, the PSJA Dual Language Enrichment Program is designed for students to develop stronger cognitive and academic skills through the development of bilingualism, bi-literacy and bi-culturalism.

Offering a rigorous curriculum from pre-kinder to 12th grade on all PSJA campuses, students are instructed in English and Spanish offering the opportunity to master both languages.

The program has garnered local, state and national attention with a recent two-day visit from the U.S Department of Education and the Texas Education Agency exploring the program’s curriculum and learning why it has been so successful for the last two decades.

Olivia Martinez, director of the program for the last 10 years, has been there since the inception of the program when she was a dual language pre-K teacher in the program’s first year.

Martinez said the two-day visit showed officials the dual language program in several PSJA schools and they also held a roundtable discussion with teachers, parents, community members and district officials.

She added PSJA was very honored and proud since they were the only district in Texas to be visited by the officials.

Some of the questions asked were about the sustainability of the program, how the program grew and how the community felt about the impacts of dual language.

“A lot of community members were talking about ‘Yes, we hire these students because they’re bilingual, bi-literate and they’re able to communicate here in America, they’re able to communicate in Mexico or, you know, different parts of the world,’” she said. “They’re looking at how to have a uniform language of multilingualism, multi-literacy and how we can expand all language programs not only in our state, but in the nation.”

Martinez said a key player in growing the program was former superintendent Daniel King who served from 2007 to 2019. She said King saw the data of student success in the program and decided to implement dual language district-wide, going from four elementaries to district-wide for the last 12 years.

A colorful board is seen in English and Spanish in a dual language classroom in Anatomy and Physiology at PSJA High Early College High School Thursday, April 4, 2024 in Pharr. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

The dual language program first started with a pre-K class which Martinez was a part of and said the funding came from a grant.

“I received excellent professional development to prepare me for the implementation of the program,” she said. “So that was crucial in really making sure that your teachers are trained and that they understand how and why we’re doing this particular type of education for our children.”

With students flourishing in the program, it gradually expanded to other grade levels following the first cohort.

Martinez explained that the dual language program is different from a former program that often set aside students that were not as strong in English and separated them. Now, students come together whether their native language is English or Spanish.

“We had both populations in the same classroom,” she said. “Learning together, learning from each other, learning each other’s language, so there was no longer division out in the playground. Before … the monolingual language students would all gather together and then the native Spanish speakers would gather together.”

That’s different now.

“That really helped both populations, not only socially, and linguistically … but cognitively, the way they were learning really made a difference in how they absorbed knowledge because they were learning in their native language and acquiring a second language,” she said.

Another reason why the program kept growing was parental involvement in the program and the desire to keep it going after elementary.

Martinez said the first cohort’s parents wanted their children to continue in the dual language program in middle and high school and the district was awarded another grant to be able to offer it in middle school.

The first graduating cohort had 45 students. Fast forward to 2024, the dual language program is set to have its 16th cohort with 515 students graduating with a seal of bi-literacy.

“This type of education has really helped a lot of our students move out of that poverty cycle,” she said. “Because they tend to do a lot better in school, and they have so many more opportunities open to them. They know that ‘Hey, I’m college material, I can go to college, I can get a degree.’

“So our community has really flourished because of the way that we have chosen to educate our emergent bilingual students and anybody else who wants to participate in dual language education.”

Martinez said one key factor in the program’s continued success is the constant advocacy from parents and district leaders.

With most dual language students starting at an early stage of their education in elementary or middle school, the program has about 1,000 or so students that are recent immigrants from Mexico.

Two PSJA Early College High School seniors, Erasmo Escamilla and Christopher Fernandez, have been a part of the dual language program since middle school.

Escamilla said growing up in a Mexican household, his first language was Spanish.

Now fluent in both Spanish and English, he said a benefit is to be able to communicate with different kinds of people especially since he is planning to study civil engineering at UTRGV.

Fernandez, who is planning to study computer science at UTRGV, said his parents wanted him to continue learning Spanish outside of their home and to have a better understanding of where his roots come from.

He said his favorite dual language class is one he is currently taking, Anatomy & Physiology, since he gets to learn new medical terms in English and Spanish.

The teacher for that class is Griselda Martinez, who has three years of teaching dual language at PSJA High School.

Martinez said the class has A and B days where it is entirely taught in English or Spanish.

Needing to take two exams to be certified to teach a dual language class, she said students being exposed to academic language in both languages has a great benefit.

“Though we might know the concept, when we try to talk about it, we don’t know the right terminology,” Martinez said. “So just being exposed to it and getting the knowledge in both languages is very beneficial to be able to communicate or understand the concept even more thoroughly.”

She added that she has been able to benefit from dual language classes and become more knowledgeable in concepts that she would mainly focus on in English but can now elaborate in Spanish.

“It has taken us to a different level and opens our eyes to the difficulties students have just as we are trying to figure out how to say something or read or put the acentos … we appreciate students and their efforts,” Martinez said. “Some of them are recent immigrants as well and we see how hard it is to learn a different language and we are able to work together.”