MENASHA, Wis. (WFRV) — For the Menasha Joint School District, the numbers help tell the story.
“15 years ago we had about a 7% Hispanic population, so a little over 200 out of 3,500 students were of a Hispanic origin. And now we are at 21% so we’ve tripled our Hispanic population over the past 15 years.”
That type of growth has presented certain challenges to a district that prides itself on giving every enrolled student the opportunity to learn.
“Every child that comes here, we need to find a way to meet their needs, so if they are not a native English speaker, we have to find ways to provide services for them so that they can learn.”
One of the people charged with growing those services is the district’s English Language Learning and Bilingual Diversity Coordinator.
“We have approximately 500 students who are considered English learners. They come in speaking another language, and our job is to help them gain English language proficiency so that they can access that content access their classes and graduate college and career ready.”
To help them do that, the office was able to obtain a Department of Workforce Development grant this year for $200,000. Those funds will help them offset the cost of finding and retaining more teachers willing to obtain their bilingual license requirements.
“We are finding the educators. Our teachers love our students and their families, and seeing our bilingual program grow so that we have our own Banta Bilingual School is a success and that families really feel like that is their school.”
At Banta Elementary Bilingual School, the students are not only benefitting from the district’s efforts to make them feel welcome. In many cases, they’re being welcomed by teachers who once walked these very same hallways.
“I first came here when I was ten years old. I was going to enter fourth grade. My family migrated from Mexico.”
Bilingual kindergarten teacher Andrea Arvizu is herself a product of the Menasha School District, and now she is one of several teachers at Banta who are able to use their own personal experience to help the next generation of immigrant students.
“Most of them don’t come in speaking Spanish or most of them don’t come in speaking English, so I absolutely know what they’re going through and how challenging it can be at first.”
Fellow kindergarten teacher Brenda Vera was also ten years old when she came to Menasha. She too understands the challenges her students face.
“I couldn’t speak any English. I couldn’t understand any English either, and I was put in a mainstream classroom. And it was very difficult because I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t make friends.”
They’ve both seen the district’s growing commitment to welcoming the Hispanic community firsthand.
“I’ve been through Menasha, and I know the families, and I know what great things Menasha was doing for the Hispanic community that I decided to stay.”
And it’s not just the students who are benefitting from their experience. The pair are also using their unique skill sets to ensure parents feel as welcomed as their children.
“When I was in school, there weren’t even very many translators, so my parents didn’t even really go to conferences because it was hard to find someone to translate and now…parents feel welcome to come because we can speak to them in their own language.”
Both women helping the district meet the needs of their growing community.
“I still can’t believe it. I’m teaching, and I get to teach in my own language.”
“It’s very rewarding and I love it.”