Heritage Language class aids native Spanish speakers
Ryan Summerlin January 7, 2014
When Laura Bechdel graduated from University of Puget Sound with a degree in comparative sociology and a minor in Spanish, she never imagined she would become a teacher. Years later, Bechdel is the driving force behind the Heritage Language class at Treasure Mountain Junior High School and Park City High School.
"After graduation, I moved to Peru to teach English as a second language," Bechdel said. "I had no idea I wanted to be a teacher, but after that, I realized that was it. That was my passion and what I wanted to make a career out of."
She moved back to the U.S. after a year, got certified and began teaching. She taught English as a second language in the Galapagos Islands for two years, and upon returning to the U.S. became the Family Literacy program instructor for adults in the Park City School District.
A year later, she became the Family Literacy program coordinator, and then went back to school to get her Master’s in teaching English as a second language as well as Spanish.
"I became the Spanish I and II teacher here at the junior high, and I realized that a lot of native Spanish speakers were in my classes with abilities that far exceeded the curriculum," Bechdel said. "They didn’t belong in those classes, and I knew it right away."
Bechdel said she spoke with the administration at the junior high and the high school and campaigned for a Heritage Language class for native Spanish speakers, and they were nothing but supportive.
Whether they were born here in the U.S., Mexico, Colombia, or any other Spanish-speaking country, their parents, grandparents and everyone else in their households speak primarily Spanish.
The class is unique in that the students not only enhance their Spanish skills in speaking, listening, reading and writing, but they also perform community service projects of their choosing and explore their culture and heritage.
She said she the curriculum is different in the sense that they look into literature, poetry and other reading assignments. Because the students are so fluent, they can delve deeper into conversation and opinions.
"This class lets these native Spanish speakers know, ‘You have a unique set of skills, and this is what you can do with them to help both yourself and your community,’" Bechdel said. "I want my students to be proud of where they come from and see that being bilingual can be a huge advantage for them."
The advantages Bechdel spoke of were college applications and job résumés. She said she sees that her students’ parents are working two or three jobs and overtime just to make sure their children can take advantage of the opportunities provided them in the school district that they couldn’t find anywhere else.
Bechdel added that her students are very grateful to their parents and eager to continue their education in order to be hired for fruitful jobs that will allow them to help their families.
"They are so very grateful, and I hear over and over again in my classes, ‘I want to go to university so I can find a good job and help my parents," she said. "They see the sacrifices their parents are making for them and want to give it back."
What surprised Bechdel when she began working here, she said, was that the city and Park City School District faculty are supportive of the Latino community, recognize all that they do for the town and want to see them excel.
"School administration talked about the achievement gap [between Caucasian students and Latino students] and how they are going to close it, and some of the elementary schools did amazing things with closing that gap," Bechdel said. "It’s because they put their resources into the Latino community and said, ‘We see the potential, we want to help them, and we want them to help us and do the best they can."
After this first year of assessment, she said she hopes to expand the program next year into two levels of classes and divide the junior high and high school classes. Bechdel has big plans for the program as well as her students and said she wants the class to become a place where they can find new ways to take advantage of their "unique abilities."
"I just feel so proud of my students, and I think they are really incredible humans," she said. "They are supportive of each other and help each other, and it is so fun to see that and be a part of that."