Local Students Showcase the “Power of Bilingualism”

This post is also available in: Portuguese (Brazil), Spanish


Emanuela P. Leaf

There are about 5 million English-language learners in the United States — or about nine percent of all public school students — and these numbers are increasing.

In Connecticut, the population of English Language Learners (ELLs) has increased by nearly 50 percent in the past 10 years. While the No. 1 one most-spoken language among English-language Learners in the state is Spanish, the second is Portuguese.

The number of immigrants coming from other places — speaking different languages — is also growing. According to the Connecticut Department of Education, 34,833 ELLs in 173 public schools have 143 different dominant languages.

Under federal law, ELLs are entitled to receive English language support services until they demonstrate English proficiency by meeting the state educational agency English mastery standard.

In Connecticut, two programs are used to achieve that goal. One is the ESL (English as a Second Language) program, defined as “a program that uses only English as the instructional language.” It is offered to eligible high school students with fewer than 30 months to graduation. The second program is the bilingual education program.

There are two types of bilingual programs. Transitional bilingual education programs use the student’s dominant language (decreasing over time) and English in instruction so that the student ultimately attains English language proficiency.

Dual-language bilingual programs also use students’ dominant languages and English in instruction, but unlike transitional programs, their goal is to develop proficiency in both languages.

Some argue that the latter is the ultimate goal: Encourage ELLs to obtain English proficiency without losing their first language.

“A bilingual education program is a very effective means to provide core content instruction in a student’s native language as the student is learning English. Research also tells us that content skills learned in the first language can be transferred to classwork in English when the student becomes more proficient in English,” said Chalise Ross, co-chair of the Bilingual Education sub-committee of the Connecticut Administrators of Programs for English Language Learners (CAPELL). “For example, once a student learns how to identify the main idea and details of a text in their native language they will be able to apply this skill when reading in English.”

CAPELL is dedicated to improving the educational experience of English Language Learners in the state. Part of its mission is also to promote cross-cultural awareness and sensitivity in Connecticut. CAPELL has been active in supporting bilingual education and the adoption of the seal of biliteracy in Connecticut. Their membership represents districts across the state with programs for ELLs.

Connecticut has a mandatory bilingual education statue that specifically charges the Department of Education to annually identify schools with 20 or more ELLs who have the same dominant language, and requires these schools to offer a bilingual education program in that language in the following school year.

Based on 2013–14 enrollment figures, the Department identified 253 mandated bilingual programs in 232 schools across 36 different local education agencies for the 2014–15 school year. Spanish accounted for 232 bilingual programs, followed by Portuguese (11), Creole-Haitian (3), Arabic (3), Karen (2) and one each in Polish and Serbo-Croatian.

Last year, the organization wanted to find a way to highlight bilingualism in a positive way and articulate what an asset English Learners are to their schools and communities.

“With that vision, we created the Power of Bilingualism contest. We wanted a way to collect and show what bilingualism means to our students, and to our future. Our first year drew 100 entries from around the state,” said Ross.

Vinicius & Sergio’s Story

Recently, CAPELL announced the winners of this statewide contest. Bethel High School ninth-grader Vinicius Andrade and Johnson Elementary School fifth grader Sergio Ortega were Connecticut’s two runners-up.

“Vinicius wrote a story on his experience of coming to this country, learning the language, and his desire to become tri-lingual. Sergio created a poem about his journey learning a second language and the opportunities it brings him,” proudly explained Stacey DeVita, the district ELL Team Leader and an ELL Instructor at Bethel Public Schools, as well as a CAPELL member.

For their accomplishment, they each received a certificate and a $50 gift card to Target.

Tribuna sat down with Vinicius and Sergio at Johnson Elementary School.

Vinicius is 14 years old. He was born in Brazil, in Governador Valadares. Soon after his mother gave birth to Vinicius, she migrated to the United States to join her husband, who had left while she was expecting the baby, to provide for the family and have a shot at the dream of owning a home. Vinicius was raised by his grandmother in the small village of Sapucaia until the age of 5, when he was reunited with his parents in the United States.

“It was a big transition for me. I didn’t understand anything people were saying. I guess where I live in Brazil was so small, and here is so big.”

Vinicius wrote in his entry about his family immigration story and of how being bilingual will ensure a better future:

“I would like to be a lawyer. My language skills will be useful to help Brazilian people who don’t know English. Also, the higher paying jobs will require the person to know more than one language. This makes me feel that I will have an advantage over the other people who will apply for the job. I will continue to work on learning English and Portuguese. I am also working on learning French. The more languages that I know will give me have a higher chance of getting a higher paying job. Being bilingual has been a lot of work, but the rewards are great.”

Sergio’s story is similar to that of Vinicius. He too was raised by relatives until he could be reunited with his mother. “My mom needed a job; we were really poor.” In the poem BEING BILINGUAL, submitted as a contest entry, Sergio beautifully shares his journey as an immigrant and bilingual student:

“From country to country,

Because our family didn’t want us hungry.

Looking for a better life

Learning a new language since I was five

Starting to translate,

Everything I heard in the whole state

Having a better education,

Now I am helping kids from different nations

Being bilingual gives me opportunities to make new friends

It is a great story and it still doesn’t end.”

I asked the students how they feel when they hear people say negative things about immigrants.

“If they’re saying mean things about my family that would affect me but they aren’t. They’re just talking about everybody, not me personally,” Sergio replied.

“I feel like if people talk badly about immigrants, they’re basing it on their opinion. They should get to know people. They don’t know how hard their lives were before they came to America.”

I also asked where it feels like home to them. Here or in Brazil, or Guatemala?

For Sergio, he has gotten used to live here. “I don’t think I would feel comfortable back in Guatemala anymore,” Vinicius said. “For me now it’s here, because my family is here.”

To DeVita, their sense of belonging has a lot to do with the welcoming atmosphere established at Bethel Public Schools.

“We’re very proud of that and very proud of them. When they’re anywhere in the school setting, we want them to feel absolutely comfortable and nurtured and focused on their education,” DeVita said. She described herself as an educator with a heart for English language learners, adding, “Bethel is looking forward to participating in the 2016 contest and I would like to encourage other schools in the area to participate as well.”

For more information on the contest, visit

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