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Playground Polyglots

Christy Krutulis ’92 and Angélica Pedroza ’99 lead the effort to strengthen dual language programming in Walla Walla’s public schools.

“In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters.” Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street

Christy Krutulis ’92 and Angélica Pedroza ’99When Angélica Pedroza ’99 was growing up in Touchet, Washington, a rural farming town of about 400 people just outside Walla Walla, the language she spoke wasn’t the only thing separating her life at home from her life at school: It was her name, too. Pedroza came from a household she describes as “very monolingual Spanish.” In school, however, it was a different story.

“When I went to kindergarten, they changed my name to Angie, because they couldn’t say my name, Angélica,” she recalled. “Being a second language learner and going to a small school, I never thought about it. That’s who I was—I was Angie, even though at home I wasn’t called that.”

In high school, Pedroza’s teachers encouraged her to apply to college, so after graduating with a class of 18 students, she enrolled at Whitman with plans to pursue education.

“Because of their influence, I knew I wanted to become a teacher,” Pedroza said. “I wanted to become a bilingual teacher because I wanted to help students like me. I wasn’t able to learn Spanish in elementary school, so when I went to Whitman, I became a Spanish major so I could become bilingual and biliterate, and then hopefully use that in teaching kids.”

As a classroom teacher for 15 years, Pedroza did just that, instructing students in kindergarten, first and second grade. (“That’s my favorite age to teach. Beyond third grade, they get taller than me.”) She also earned her master’s in education at Eastern Washington University, where she completed a thesis project on dual language programs.

Now, Pedroza serves as the bilingual coordinator for the entire Walla Walla Public School district, making a difference for her own children and others like them. Her three sons all went through Walla Walla’s bilingual program in elementary school, an experience she wishes had been available to her.

“Mrs. Pedroza has been a champion for program improvement,” said Wade Smith, the school district’s superintendent. “Her experiences as a classroom teacher, [her understanding of the] history of the program and knowledge of bilingual education best practices have served as an invaluable resource to the committee.”

Spearheaded by Pedroza and fellow Whitman alumna Christy Krutulis ’92, the district’s executive director for teaching and learning, the Bilingual Education Recommendation Committee was formed in 2016. It is comprised primarily of parents and classroom teachers who review the bilingual program and make recommendations to the school board.

“It’s kind of taken over our lives,” laughed Krutulis, who has led dozens of parent meetings, community feedback sessions, classroom visits and interviews with teachers and students.

“We’ve been trying to get a really good handle on it,” she explained. “One of the things we’re finding is that without consistency, kids are not getting an equitable experience in different buildings, and they’re not always even being exposed to the same curriculum. We have a ton of amazing bilingual teachers, but we really need to systematize it.”

While some form of bilingual programming has existed in Walla Walla schools since the mid-1980s, today it has expanded to 36 dual immersion classrooms. In these classrooms, native English- and Spanish-speaking students are paired as “bilingual buddies” to help one another build listening, speaking, reading and writing skills in both languages.

“The students can pick it up so quick,” said Pedroza.

Annie Want ’17, a politics major who has seen dual immersion in action as a classroom tutor at Walla Walla’s Sharpstein Elementary, concurred.

“They’re able to work on counting skills, social-emotional skills and a basic grounding in weather, time and colors,” she said. “I love that the kids are learning a second language in an applied way, since their science and math classes are often in their second language.”

In addition to aiding linguistic comprehension, the program has built bridges between students and parents from different ethnic backgrounds, strengthening community relations.

Before dual immersion, Pedroza recalled, native Spanish speakers were often taught in a different classroom from their English-speaking classmates.

“You would see that division across the whole school day, because they never interacted—especially not at lunch and on the playground. Now they’re learning together. It’s, ‘When we’re in Spanish, I’m going to help you, but when we go to English, you need to help me.’ The middle school kids even talk about it like, ‘This is our family. We’ve been together since kindergarten.’”

Krutulis added that when they interviewed white and Latino middle schoolers as part of the review, many already recognized that being bilingual could increase their employment opportunities.

“At the parent input sessions, we talked about the cognitive benefits and the ability to be aware of another culture. It just makes their kids better citizens.”

According to Superintendent Smith, Krutulis has “done a remarkable job facilitating” and “gone above and beyond the call of duty … to ensure a transparent process that results in improved outcomes for Latino students.”

A history major at Whitman, Krutulis was a star tennis player who stayed on to coach the women’s team after she graduated. She earned her master’s in teaching at the University of Puget Sound and taught for 13 years in Bellevue, Washington, before becoming a school principal. She has held her current position in the district administration since last July, with the bilingual program review front and center.

“One of the biggest things I learned at Whitman was [the value of] participation,” Krutulis said. “Having been shy, believe it or not, that experience was instrumental to what I’ve been able to do, because now I spend a lot of time in front of people. Being in a small community where you can easily access and share resources and collaborate has been a really great experience.”

Like Krutulis, Pedroza appreciates the big picture approach her position as bilingual coordinator has afforded her.

“I like being part of a system that’s able to reach all of the students in our district and not just my own small classroom.”

On the other hand, she said, “I’m working with a lot more adults now instead of children, which is very different. I miss all the hugs. Adults don’t do that!”

Once they have mastered English, many students can be reluctant to go back to speaking Spanish in school, a struggle Pedroza has faced firsthand. She said it often takes longer to express something in Spanish, both verbally and in writing.

“It’s much simpler to speak in English, so kids tend to prefer that.”

Nevertheless, the program’s success depends on students’ willingness to learn in both languages, making it a constant battle for bilingual educators.

“It’s a balance, and English can easily take over if you let it,” Pedroza said. “So we almost intentionally have to make our students believe that we’re not bilingual—that we’re only monolingual Spanish speakers—because once they know, they tune you out.”

Krutulis and Pedroza agree that, in an ideal world, every student in Walla Walla would have access to dual language programming. As is, there are limits to how many are able to enroll each year and budget constraints on the number of certified bilingual teachers the district can hire. High quality curricular materials in Spanish can be hard to come by; many of the dual language teachers end up translating their own classroom materials, taking time away from lesson planning.

There have also been complaints from some parents that the English-only track takes on more special education students, an issue the committee hopes to address in its future recommendations.

“In any classroom or kindergarten cohort, you have this continuum of students,” Krutulis said. “We have second language learners coming to us that have varying levels of Spanish and English. We have some students that are low in both, some that are stronger in English yet when they register, the parent puts Spanish as the first language. We have to try to meet kids’ needs where they are and then move them toward where they need to be.”

She added, “We have made a commitment to bilingual, but we would be teaching these students anyway.”

At the end of the day, the district’s main objective is to make sure all its students are proficient in English. As Krutulis put it, “While there’s this amazing benefit for the native English speakers [to learn Spanish], our purpose is to support our native Spanish speakers or any second language learner, because that’s the reality of assessments and getting into college afterward. We want them to have both, but we also have this primary charge as educators.”

Their complicated mission reflects the shifting demographics of cities and towns across the nation as well as attitudes toward bilingual education. (Parents and teachers increasingly support two-way immersion programs.) About 40 percent of Walla Walla’s student population of 6,000 is Latino; statewide, Latinos make up 12 percent of the population, according to the Pew Research Center.

“Our student population has changed, standards have changed, we’re looking deeply at how students in this district are performing. We need to make some modifications, because it’s what’s best for kids,” said Krutulis. “We know that students who come to us from low-income families have much less exposure to the oral and written language, and when you add onto that that they’re also in a second language, trying to figure out the right programming has been challenging.”

Looking back, she credits Whitman with equipping her with a foundation from which to mount her career in public service.

“I learned to think more on an inquiry base, and more deeply, and ask questions,” she said. “I think all of that is applicable, particularly in education where things are always changing. You have to use resources beyond just what’s in front of you. Learning how to do all of those things and manage your time were extremely valuable experiences for me at Whitman and have really served me well.”

For Pedroza, Whitman represented an opportunity to reclaim some of the sense of identity that she had lost when her kindergarten teacher shortened her name.

“When I got to Whitman I was like, wait a minute. There’s so much more diversity here—there are different cultures, and it’s valued. Then I became Angélica again. And that’s who I want to be to my students. I want to be a person that is bicultural and can contribute to both worlds, and not just one or the other.”

Published on May 1, 2017
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