father helping daughter with homework

In a recent podcast in ourLanguage is Your Superpower” series, Johanna López credits her students for her historical 2018 landslide win to become a member of the Orange County Public School Board (OCPS) in Central Florida.  Not only did she obtain a seat with 40,000+ votes (previous elections were won by a margin of closer to 10,000 votes), she also became the first Latina in its 170-year history to be elected. This accomplishment started way before she decided to run for OCPS. It started with the love for her students and creating opportunities for them to advocate for their future.

In Orange County, Florida, 1 in 3 people speak Spanish. In 2018, Spectrum News 13 reported three big trends in Orange County schools:

  • OCPS shows an influx of Hispanic students.
  • Hispanic students make up 41 percent of the county’s school districts.
  • The county is addressing the influx via hiring multilingual, ESOL teachers.

As a native Spanish speaker that taught in Puerto Rico, Johanna quickly realized when she started teaching in the U.S. mainland that there were bilingual opportunities to advocate for and to better serve all students, but particularly those for whom English is not their first language.

For example, with no Spanish representation on the Parent Teachers Association (PTA) in the school she worked at in Orlando, Johanna created a group called “Familias presentes, estudiantes excelentes” (Involved Families, Excellent Students) to increase parent and student engagement. The group quickly grew to over 900 members, especially when Hurricane María forced many Puerto Rican families to move to the mainland U.S. With the increase of the Hispanic community, students were motivated to participate and empowered to use their native language as they learned English and got involved in the community. The bilingual exchange among the students began in the classroom and quickly expanded to campaigning in English and Spanish for Johanna’s campaign for School Board.

When she decided to run for the OCPS School Board, her students quickly rallied to support her. As part of the campaigning process, her students were charged with educating the Hispanic community about Johanna’s candidacy and the role of the School Board. This involved going door-to-door, speaking to members in the community, which made many students feel self-conscious and unsure of their linguistic skills. Johanna explains, “With my accent, I have to set an example to them, so they feel enough comfortable [sic] to knock on those doors and try their best to speak English to the community. It was a challenge for me and for them, but we achieved our goal.”

This student-led civic engagement opportunity allowed not only Johanna, but more importantly her students, to realize that despite language barriers or linguistic limitations, they have the capacity to learn, grow, and advocate for their future. Johanna proudly proclaims, “My accent is an asset.” She also taught her students that, “It is not the accent. It’s about passion. It’s about engagement. It’s about community. It’s about being transparent. People know when you are trying your best. They value that.”

Multilingual skills are highly valued in today’s economy. High school students who are multilingual can have their skills recognized by obtaining the Seal of Biliteracy. The Seal is approved by 45 states, and it recognizes high school graduates who have attained high levels of proficiency in English and another world language. This award not only recognizes the value of language diversity, but it also provides employers and college admissions offices with a method of identifying those who are multiliterate.

Are you interested in bringing the Seal of Biliteracy to your school? ACTFL and LTI are proud to support the Seal of Biliteracy by offering proficiency- and performance-based assessments for learners in grades 9-12. Over 600,000 students have earned this distinction that is available in many languages and allows them to claim that language is their superpower. Learn more here.

Tune into the podcast with Johanna López here.




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