August 2, 2004
For two weeks, Superintendent Debra Duvall experienced firsthand what some students in the Mesa Unified School District experience every day they go to school.
She sat in a classroom where her language isn’t spoken — and she tried to learn.
Duvall returned recently from Cuernavaca, Mexico, about 50 miles south of Mexico City, where she participated in a Spanish immersion boot camp with 12 other district officials.
Duvall said she learned plenty during her two weeks. Some of the lessons, however, were more profound than conjugating verbs or being able to ask for directions.
She experienced the feeling of isolation — a feeling, she said, that is all too familiar to many of the native Spanish speakers in Mesa classrooms.
"As students become adolescents, they become more aware of being a part of the group," she said. "And when they don’t speak the language, it’s an added barrier to fitting in."
The experience has strengthened Duvall’s commitment to ensure that Mesa teachers have the skills necessary to reach those students who don’t speak English as their primary language, she said.
To start, she plans to share her experiences with Mesa teachers as part of teacher inservice training. David Luna, the district’s director of educational television, said he videotaped some of the instruction in Mexico to facilitate Duvall’s discussion.
"The way the teachers delivered instruction was impressive, and they showed some strategies we could all learn from," he said.
Duvall hopes to extend the opportunity next year to district employees to participate in a Spanish-language immersion program. She said she’ll look for sponsors to help defray participants’ costs. Duvall and the other participants on the recent Cuernavaca trip paid their own expenses.
Duvall said although she learned a lot, it is the things she couldn’t learn that resonate with her. The woman who served as host to her had been a third-grade teacher, just as Duvall had been.
"I really wanted to ask her about her experiences as a teacher, but I couldn’t communicate well enough to do so," she said.
The two weeks in Mexico has also fortified Duvall’s commitment to learning Spanish.
Luna, who is Hispanic, praised Duvall for her willingness to learn Spanish and better serve Mesa’s Hispanic community.
"The leader of the district is taking the time to learn, and that commitment filters down through the district," he said.