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  • Writer's pictureRachel Showstack

Supporting Multilingualism for Health Equity in Public Education in Kansas

Education has long been considered a “social determinant of health” (SoDH), or a condition in which people live that affects their overall quality of life and health outcomes. For example, research demonstrates that people with lower levels of education are more likely to suffer from certain health problems that can be traced to lifestyle factors, like heart disease and diabetes.


The Healthy People 2030 framework details a set of educational objectives for improving community health by increasing graduation rates, college attendance, and reading levels. These objectives are important steps toward achieving health equity, a state in which everyone is able attain their highest possible level of health.


At the Kansas Multilingualism Summit on Saturday, I argued that one person’s educational opportunities can impact not only their own health outcomes, but also the health and wellbeing of the whole community. Specifically, I was referring to the opportunities within the educational system for bilingual youth to expand their bilingualism, develop literacy skills in two or more languages, and learn to use their languages effectively in professional contexts.


There are over 112 unique languages spoken in the homes of students attending Wichita Public Schools, and Spanish is by far the most commonly spoken language other than English. Almost 38% (17,624) of the students in the district are Hispanic/Latino, and about half of those students speak Spanish at home.


In my experience as a Spanish professor, one of the primary reasons that Latine students in Kansas choose to focus on maintaining and developing their Spanish language and literacy skills is to be able to support the health of their Kansas Latine community in the future, either by providing professional medical interpreting services, becoming qualified bilingual healthcare providers, educating Spanish-speaking youth, or using Spanish in another helping profession.


Providing services for linguistically diverse community members in a safe and equitable way requires much more than being bilingual. To be a qualified medical interpreter, one must have extensive training in protocols, ethics, field-specific language, and the navigation of multiple roles. Translators (professionals who render written documents into another language) must have excellent literacy skills in both the source and target language and studies in translation.


But the first step in supporting emergent bilingual Latine youth in becoming bilingual professionals is to provide educational opportunities that support Spanish language maintenance and literacy development. This can start as early as pre-school.


At the summit, we heard from the Principal of Horace Mann K-8 Dual Language Magnet Joel Escarpita about the educational, personal, cultural, academic, and professional benefits of receiving instruction in two languages at the elementary and middle school levels; we also learned from long-time North High School Spanish instructor Jennifer Parga about course offerings for Spanish heritage speakers, our Latine students who are exposed to Spanish in their families and communities here in the U.S. Ms. Parga explained that Wichita has made progress in developing heritage language education programs since the need was first identified in the year 2000, but Spanish heritage language courses are not yet being offered at the middle school level in USD 259 outside of Horace Mann, a problem that rings close to home, as my bilingual 11-year-old was told he would be placed in first year Spanish when he starts sixth grade in a Wichita middle school this fall.


During the meeting, Spanish-speaking parents asked why it is so hard to get into Horace Mann; some of our participants’ children (and my own child) were on Horace Mann’s waiting list before starting Kindergarten and were not accepted. There is clearly a need for expanded opportunities for Spanish-language schooling so that more Wichita children can benefit from dual language education. Mr. Escarpita also commented to me that greater continuity is needed between different schools and grade levels to create a pathway for bilingual students to attain the Kansas Seal of Biliteracy, a credential that officially recognizes high school graduates who have attained “intermediate or advanced proficiency levels in two or more languages.”


As Wichita State MA candidate Denise Menjivar indicated in her research presentation at the summit, Spanish teachers need to receive specialized training to address heritage speakers’ unique learning needs. One of the barriers to being able to offer adequate educational programs for emergent bilingual students and Spanish heritage speakers in Kansas is the lack of educational programming for teachers focused on dual language and heritage language education. Wichita State University’s Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures hopes to offer expanded programming on Spanish education in multilingual contexts in the coming years when additional faculty are hired into the department.


In addition to qualified teachers, parent involvement also contributes to student success in biliteracy development and other subjects. At the summit, Spanish-speaking parents shared that they want to be more involved with their children’s education and need help overcoming language barriers in order to do so. Wichita’s school district USD 259 has a Multilingual Education Services department that includes translation services and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL); despite the existence of these services, some of the summit participants described difficulties communicating with teachers and administrators due to a language barrier. The participants’ experiences point to a need for improved systems of providing language access services within the school system. For example, parent-teacher conferences can be strategically scheduled to allow for professional interpreting services for all parents who need them.


WSU Tech One Workforce Coordinator Daisy Reyes gave a presentation at the summit on how Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent supreme court decisions require schools to provide educational support services for linguistically diverse students and interpreting services for parents who need them. The conversations that occurred before and after Ms. Reyes’s presentation indicated that some Spanish-speaking parents in Wichita are not aware of their civil rights in relation to multilingual services or do not feel empowered to demand that those rights are respected. Therefore, the group determined that community education on civil rights in education is vital for educational equity in Latine communities.


For the Latine community in Kansas to achieve health equity, multilingualism, biliteracy development, and support for Latine parents must be prioritized in the public school system.


Educational leaders in attendance at the summit determined that the next step in supporting multilingualism for our Latine youth is to create an informational document for policy makers, like educational administrators, to explain our recommended next steps. If you would like to be a part of the creation of this document, please send me an email at rachel.showstack@wichita.edu.


Summit panelist Dr. Suzanne García-Mateus of California State University Monterey Bay reminded us that supporting bilingualism includes praising our children’s Spanish and electing school board members who understand the value of multilingualism. School board elections for Wichita Public Schools will be on November 7, 2023.


Alce su voz is a community-based coalition whose mission is to improve health equity for Spanish speakers and speakers of indigenous languages in the United States, with a focus on Kansas and the Midwest. For more information or to get involved, please send an email to alcesuvoz@gmail.com. You can also join our email list and follow us on Facebook and Instagram.


This blog post was supported by the Office of Minority Health (OMH) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $375,000 with 100 percent funded by OMH/OASH/HHS. The contents are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor endorsement by OMH/OASH/HHS, or the U.S. Government. For more information, please visit https://www.minorityhealth.hhs.gov/



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