Teton County schools had the largest percentage of English Language Learners in the state last year, making the district of interest to the U.S. Department of Education.
On Thursday, Jose Viana, assistant deputy secretary and director of the Office of English Language Acquisition, visited Jackson Hole High School — where principal Scott Crisp is a campus fellow in the federal department — and Munger Mountain Elementary School, the state’s first dual immersion school.
Also on the school visits was state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, who heads the Wyoming Department of Education.
Wyoming may not be the first place that comes to mind when thinking about English Language Learners. States like Texas, California and Florida tend to have much higher populations of them and receive more attention. But the county numbers don’t lie.
In the 2017-18 school year, the Wyoming public school system had 3,174 English Language Learners out of 92,976 students, about 3.4 percent. Teton County School District No. 1 had 560 out of 2,862 students, about 19.5 percent.
“When I said I wanted to go to Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, everyone thought, ‘Why are you going there?’” Viana said. “It’s just about making people aware that English learners are everywhere, immigrant children are everywhere and that we’re doing unique, incredible stuff in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and places like that.”
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, immigrants and Hispanic children make up a quarter of public school students in America.
It was Viana’s first time in the state, and he said he enjoys visiting classrooms.
“This is definitely my favorite part of the job,” Viana said. “I used to be a teacher myself, a teacher of English learners for many years, so I miss the schools. When they say, ‘Go visit a school,’ I’m the first one to raise my hand.”
He’s on a back-to-school tour, as are other deputy assistant secretaries and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
“The focus is on innovation and rethinking education,” Viana said. “Everyone, when they think of that, they think of technology or STEM or those things. Language is an area where there is room for doing things differently, too. I’m sure all these kids in Jackson, Wyoming, never thought they’d be fully bilingual.”
On school visits, Viana aims to do “reconnaissance” to find best practices and learn how schools meet challenges — like staffing — of dual immersion programs and others for English language acquisition.
Viana was appointed to his position in the Trump administration in May 2017 and oversees a $60 million budget. He said he’s proud of empowering parents and promoting family engagement through a “family toolkit.” As the son of Cuban immigrants, the hurdles that stand in the way of educational equity for Hispanic children are personal for him.
“That happened with me as a Hispanic kid,” he said. “My parents dropped me off at school and kind of left me there and said the teachers are taking care of that part of my life. Our parents tend to do the same thing. They don’t realize that they can be involved in their children’s education.”
One lofty goal of Viana’s is changing the name of the Office of English Language Acquisition to simply the Office of Language Acquisition.
That one word matters, he said. It suggests a disparity, something students don’t know, ground to make up. But it’s not like they know nothing. In fact, they can be at an advantage knowing one language and, instead, working on learning two.