Summer 2023
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A Winning Solution for Bilingual Students

Jessica Pickens becomes one of the first teachers in Redmond’s inaugural dual-language program, helping to build a community where all cultural backgrounds are celebrated By Rachel Brumfield

Students at Hugh Hartman Elementary know Jessica Pickens’ (B19, M22) classroom by the acronym “W.I.N.” Displayed prominently on a sign above the entrance, W.I.N. stands for “What I Need” and perfectly describes what kids experience when they step inside.

As a reading specialist, Pickens helps students build their reading skills in English or Spanish through creative and evidence-based interventions. It’s a role that draws from her own background – and allows her to help bridge a gap in the system that she’s experienced firsthand.

Between Two Cultures

Pickens grew up in a bilingual home. She remembers watching her mother, who emigrated from Mexico, struggle to navigate a school system that wasn’t designed for her. Throughout her own school years, Pickens never felt fully part of the Spanish- or English-speaking communities – she always found herself between two cultures, wondering where she belonged.

After working for a brief time as a dental assistant, an opportunity came up at a local elementary school to work as an instructional aide. She quickly applied. In the classroom, Pickens’ job was to support English language development, allowing her to tap into her bilingual background to connect with students.

“That’s kind of where I found my calling and really understood that education was my passion,” she says. “I cultivated an absolute love of learning and realized this is where I want to be.”

An Accessible Pathway

Around the same time, the Redmond School District was making plans to launch a dual-language elementary school. Its vision was to find educators who were deeply rooted in the community and willing to invest in its kids to build the program. While recruiting locally was a big priority, finding bilingual teachers proved a challenge.

“In my role, I knew of bilingual individuals in our community who wanted to become teachers,” says Brittaney Cocciolo, former assistant director of student services in the Redmond School District. “It was a lifelong dream for many of them. This was our opportunity to support them. We knew they were going to be incredible teachers, and we wanted to help them get there.”

Cocciolo partnered with Katy Turpen, director of the elementary education degree completion program at George Fox, to help these future teachers navigate the world of higher education. The degree completion program offered an accessible pathway for teaching licensure – and the support that many in the community, as working adults or first-generation college students, would need. Turpen personally walked with each of them through the application process and helped connect them with the right people along the way.

This personal approach made all the difference. “George Fox’s program has been really advantageous to our community because it offers a level of support that other programs have not offered our beginning teachers in the past,” Cocciolo says.

Student and Mom

Pickens knew she wanted to become a teacher, but for a time she had trouble believing her dream could become a reality. “I wanted to further my education and achieve my personal goals and aspirations, but it never really seemed attainable to me as a young mom just trying to work a job and make ends meet.”

Information for the elementary education degree completion program landed on her desk one day. It felt like a stretch to commit to college, but the evening classes and accelerated timeline eliminated enough barriers to make it possible, so she enrolled.

“George Fox worked with me to continue working in my instructional aide position while student teaching at the same time,” she says. “It was not easy to do both, but it made it possible for me.”

When it came time to complete her student teaching commitment, the dual-language program was launching in the Redmond School District. Pickens spent half her days there teaching in Spanish and the other half immersed in a reading intervention program.

“It was a great journey, and they supported me all the way to the point I am now,” she says.

A few months later, Pickens was hired on as a full-time teacher in the dual-language program, where she now runs the reading intervention program in the W.I.N. room.

‘Assets in the Classroom’

“What makes Hugh Hartman unique is that we are disrupting systems that were not working in schools for English learners, and we’re flipping the script,” Pickens says. “We are looking at our students, who are coming in with these multi-linguistic repertoires, as assets in their classroom, not deficits. Our staff understands how to leverage that asset and meet children where they’re at linguistically, and also help them cultivate a strong foundation in two-program languages.”

“We are looking at our students, who are coming in with these multi-linguistic repertoires, as assets in their classroom, not deficits.”

Dual-language education has been shown to lead to higher reading test scores and help accelerate English language learners’ path to proficiency. It also helps build strong communities, benefiting Spanish- and English-speaking students alike.

English-speaking students who learn Spanish begin to appreciate the differences in others, navigate and celebrate those differences, and encounter the language barrier in a positive way. For students who speak Spanish as their first language, a bilingual program means they won’t lose their native language – they’ll be able to communicate with their grandparents and families who live in other countries – while at the same time gaining English proficiency.

‘Unapologetically Me’

“One of the most incredible ripple effects that this bilingual program has created for our community is that kids are connected to their families in a way that they were not connected before,” Pickens says. “They feel connected to their identity and celebrate their heritage.”

Stepping into her role as a bilingual educator has allowed her to draw from her family connections and celebrate her heritage as well.

“For me, it wasn’t until much later in life that I realized that being bicultural, and having my mom’s story play into my life, is all part of my identity. I’m at a place now where I feel unapologetically proud of who I am,” she says. “And my hope is that when my students see me being unapologetically me – their bilingual teacher – it gives them the confidence that they need to be proud of who they are and where they come from.”

Out of the 29 teachers at Hugh Hartman, 12 are graduates of George Fox.

“One of the most powerful outcomes that I see is the community that’s been established at Hugh Hartman Elementary,” says Cocciolo, who is also a parent of two Hugh Hartman students.

“Not only is there a stronger sense of community between the families and the school district, there’s a stronger sense of community between the teachers. They all have a passion to be here. They care about it so much because they care about the kids.”

For Pickens, who later earned a master of education degree from George Fox, it all comes down to caring about the kids. Because she’s lived and worked in the community for years, she is able to watch kids progress into middle school and high school.

“I’ve had students who I worked with early on in my career come into my classroom as volunteers,” she says. “These are kids who, when I first met them, didn’t speak English, were struggling to find their place – and they have found their way. They come in being unapologetically who they are.

“That’s one of my favorite things. You build the community around you.”

Watch Jessica Pickens at work in the classroom

Watch video: Proud to Be a Bilingual Educator
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