For Brackenridge High School senior Karla Castillo, participating in the dual language program helped her feel seen not only as a Mexican American but as a young woman.

Growing up, she primarily learned history through the lens of a white man. Classroom lessons and discussion excluded her culture and lacked representation of women’s roles in history. But all that changed after she enrolled in the San Antonio Independent School District’s first high school dual language program, where she took a Mexican American studies class.

Castillo and 56 other Brackenridge High School seniors make up the first graduating class of dual language students in SAISD. These students entered the program as freshmen in 2018 and took classes like biology, history, algebra and Latino Cultural Expressions in Spanish. The school board recognized the 57 students at its Feb. 22 meeting.

“Before, there was always a lack of representation, with no one I could relate to, no one who looked like me and no one who I could look up to,” Castillo told the SAISD board last month. “This program has helped me uncover knowledge I had never known before and has aided me in my self-discovery to finding who I am as a person and who I will become later in life.”

The students either already spoke Spanish at home or had participated in the district’s elementary dual language program at Bonham Academy, making them perfect candidates for SAISD’s first high school cohort of emergent bilingual students, said Esmeralda Alday, executive director of the district’s dual language, ESL and migrant program.

“We already had students who didn’t see themselves in the curriculum, who didn’t see their home language represented, who were failing academically,” she said. “We decided to do something that to other districts seemed experimental and unorthodox.”

SAISD’s dual language program seemed unorthodox because the district didn’t have students entering the high school program from a middle school one, Alday said. Most school districts add one grade level at a time to the program, but SAISD didn’t want to wait until it reached ninth grade.

SAISD will graduate three more dual language classes next year, from Lanier, Edison and the Centers for Applied Sciences & Technology Med High School. Seven high schools now have dual language programs, and the district started a middle school program this school year.

In 2018, a group of SAISD principals visited Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD in the Rio Grande Valley to observe its high school dual language program, returning with the hopes of replicating the model here, Alday said. But the district didn’t have a pipeline of students coming from feeder schools with dual language programs. Students may have been in the elementary program or spoke Spanish at home, but they weren’t using the language in school.

Alday and her colleagues recruited students for the dual language program who spoke Spanish at home or had participated in the elementary program, calling parents and holding an informational session at Brackenridge to get parents to commit to the program.

One of the students they recruited was Zercovia White, who had been in Bonham’s dual language program in elementary school. She’s not a native Spanish speaker but decided to enroll in the program so she could help more people as a medical professional. White wants to be obstetrician-gynecologist, oncologist or nurse.

At the school board meeting, White described how challenging she found taking classes like biology, her favorite subject, in another language. In English, that class would have been a “breeze,” she said.

“It was an awakening point for me realizing I don’t know what I thought I did,” she said. “As a dual language graduate student, I feel prepared to use both languages in my career without feeling different. And as a person prepared to enter the medical field, I will not allow a language barrier to threaten someone’s life.”

Zercovia White
Zercovia White Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

At Bonham, White took biology in both languages, but at Brackenridge, the teacher taught the class mostly in Spanish, which was a shock to her at first. The consistency of being exposed to Spanish daily helped her learn it better, especially having fellow students who already spoke the language. She said having both native and non-native speakers in the program balanced it and helped the students learn from each other.

“It was really good to bring them together so that they can learn both languages at the same time and incorporate both of them in their lives,” she said.

While the program helped students develop their language skills, it also led them to develop a “critical consciousness lens,” said Rogelio Nava, secondary coordinator for the dual language program.

“The students are so articulate, so well-spoken and are critical consumers of communication and rhetoric, whether it be in English or Spanish, and that’s the beauty of the program,” he said. “They can do it in both languages.”

But the program didn’t just help students. The teachers SAISD recruited taught in Spanish “under the radar” but weren’t certified as bilingual educators, Alday said.

“They were doing what we call ‘escondido’ so nobody knew because there’s always been a stigma attached to teaching in Spanish,” she said. “It comes across as if you’re not doing these kids any favors.”

Until 1973, Texas did not permit students to be taught in Spanish, according to the Texas State Historical Association. State laws prohibiting students and teachers from speaking Spanish in schools date back as far as 1918. Gov. Dolph Briscoe signed the Bilingual Education and Training Act in 1973, abolishing the English-only teaching mandate.

Gladys Ornelas, center, a bilingual biology teacher, looks over photographs of the first dual-language cohort from 2018.
Gladys Ornelas, center, a bilingual biology teacher, looks over photographs of the first dual-language cohort from 2018. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

After joining the dual language program, teachers told Alday that they were now able to speak to their grandmothers in fluent Spanish and that they knew their content deeper because they had to write lesson plans in both languages. They felt like they were keeping their language and culture alive.

“They found another piece of who they were by becoming bilingual teachers,” she said. “They felt like they were reconnected to their families because they are now having to learn how to teach courses like biology in Spanish, and they had permission to do it. They didn’t have to hide from anyone.”

Nava said the program allowed teachers to connect in the classroom with students culturally as well as linguistically.

“When the students are engaged with teachers that way, it’s different from when they engage with their teachers in monolingual English in their other classes,” he said. “It feels like they’re talking to an aunt or uncle or a cousin even. There’s a real sense of family in the classrooms.”

Like those teachers, Castillo hopes to help students similar to herself by becoming an early childhood educator. In elementary school, she struggled to feel understood because her primary language is Spanish, and she never knew which language was the “right” one to use.

“Not being understood sometimes was really frustrating,” she said. “It’s so important for me to be able to help out not only the kids, but also the community because we’re all interconnected.”

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.