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Madison Metropolitan School District

Found in Translation: Multicultural Services Staff Grow Educational Opportunities, Connections

Found in Translation: Multicultural Services Staff Grow Educational Opportunities, Connections

From Cambodia to The Gambia, and Belarus to Bolivia, families from around the globe are a part of the MMSD community. With more than 100 languages spoken in the Madison area, providing equitable access to high-quality multilingual, multicultural, and global education is indisputable to ensuring all students thrive.

To support the district’s growing multilingual education offerings for native English speakers and English Learners (EL), multiple roles work within MMSD’s Office of Multilingual Programs and Services: Bilingual Resource Specialists (BRS), Dual Language Immersion (DLI) teachers, Developmental Bilingual Education (DBE) teachers, high school bilingual school counselors, and others.

These staff members work directly with students and their families to bridge gaps not just of language, but of understanding and opportunity.

Marisa Chia-Hui Chang, Mandarin BRS

Marisa Chia-Hui Chang is in her 25th year as a Mandarin BRS with MMSD, currently working at Van Hise Elementary and Hamilton Middle School. BRS staff provide students and families with native language and cultural support, in addition to interpretation and translation needs for the school. 

Chang also speaks Spanish, stemming from her family’s immigration to Argentina when she was a teenager.

“At that time, I had zero Spanish skills and struggled to make friends. School life was very challenging for me due to a sense of isolation and lack of support from bilingual staff. Having this experience helps me put myself in immigrant students’ and families’ shoes, anticipating their needs and struggles. My career in bilingual education allows me to assist immigrant students and their families in their transition, as well as advocate for them.”

As an English, Mandarin, and Spanish speaker, Chang enjoys helping EL students build confidence in their communication; the absolute greatest moments for her are seeing her students leverage their unique backgrounds and experiences to make contributions to others.

“DLI/EL education provides a learning environment for students from different cultural backgrounds to come together, fostering open mindedness and an appreciation of diversity.”

Kathy Perez Lohr, DLI History Teacher and DLI Coordinator

DLI education continues to grow each year at MMSD, increasing from 1,089 students in 2012–13 to almost 4,000 in 2023–24 - more than a 250 percent increase in 10 years. The program brings ELs and native English speakers together in a classroom where they learn side by side, with classes taught in both Spanish and English.

During her 12 years with MMSD, Kathy Perez Lohr has worked with students in elementary, middle, and most recently, high school at Vel Phillips Memorial.

“I wanted to see more Hispanic representation in my community. My dream has always been that every learner can find someone to connect with culturally at school. In my role, I also try to find as many resources and learning opportunities as possible that offer our students more creative and constructive ways of learning.”

A few of Perez Lohr’s most recent creative learning opportunities include engaging guest speakers, leading interactive field trips, and facilitating peer learning; for instance, this spring Perez Lohr’s freshman DLI students visited Gillespie Middle School to mentor eighth grade DLI students about the transition to high school. This winter, she welcomed back a Memorial alum who shared his educational journey, starting as a Chilean immigrant who did not speak English, through his current experience as a freshman at Harvard University.

“English-as-a-second-language (ESL) education and the DLI program have helped to validate and honor the use of other languages besides English, and to understand that our home language is an integral part of our identity.”

Clara Elena Salinas, Spanish BRS

At Lindbergh Elementary School, Clara Salinas has experienced first-hand how impactful multilingual services can be, for native English speakers and ELL alike.

“Bilingual education is, from my perspective, a condition for equality and thus, for democracy. I enjoy educating non-English-speaking parents about their rights and their student's rights within MMSD. I enjoy being part of a district that has a vision of including them and offering them the best education possible.”

Building relationships with students and families is an art she's mastered over the years. Working in a small school has its advantages, allowing her to be proactive with parent communication. She recalled one family she worked closely with, supporting a father and his two children who had recently immigrated to the U.S. 

“I was his channel, his interpreter, his advocate. Whether it was helping him understand an individualized education plan (IEP) or being his voice at school events, I was there every step of the way.”