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At Horace Mann Magnet School, students and staff truly reflect Wichita’s Spanish-speaking diversity

How one school strikes the balance between Spanish and English curriculum: bilingual instruction and a multicultural staff.

By Stefania Lugli | Wichita Kansas | August 16, 2022

Horace Mann School in Wichita Kansas. Picture by Claudia Amaro

Students of Horace Mann Dual Language Magnet School can hear how the rhythm of one teacher’s accent compares to another. It’s a gift beyond instruction in two languages — one that enriches a student’s bilingualism.

The school teaches its students in both English and Spanish, weaving in the two languages in its core curriculum as well as its extracurriculars. Its instruction is unique in Wichita, but its demographic makeup isn’t: a majority Hispanic student population, united under one roof to learn and grow together.

As students and families prepare for the first bell of the school year, Planeta Venus spoke with Horace Mann staff on how their student population reflects Wichita’s wealth in diversity.

‘Our community is so strong’

Out of over 47,000 students, 36.79% of them identify as Hispanic, making them the majority, according to enrollment data from Wichita Public Schools. The same data states that there are 105 languages spoken in the homes of WPS families and 95 different countries of birth.

At Horace Mann, Hispanic students come as first, second or third-generation Americans or as immigrants themselves. A majority are from Mexican families, according to Joel Escarpita, the principal at Horace Mann.

“(Wichita’s) been a city where, historically, there’s a lot of Mexican migration happening,” Escarpita said in an interview. “We’re still a place where newcomers arrive. I think because our community is so strong, we continue to grow and welcome new families.”

Monica Limon, a second-grade teacher at Horace Mann, said that Wichita’s Mexican community breathes life in every aspect of the city, making it feel like home away from home.

“When I went to Mexico I was like, ‘hey, this looks like my neighborhood!’ because I grew up here in the area,” Limon said. “I got that feeling. Like, wow, it’s like I never left home (in Wichita).”

Over 17% of Wichita residents are Hispanic, according to 2021 U.S. Census data, bringing in Hispanic and Latinos as the city’s second-largest ethnicity behind white people, who make up 62.5%.

About half of the students beginning Horace Mann have a strong foundation in English, according to Escarpita. The other half come with backgrounds in Spanish, ranging from total fluency or “emerging” bilinguals, showing the first signs of future, proficient bilingualism.

“As our community evolves, many of our … incoming kids are coming to us with a greater understanding of English and some decrease in their ability to speak in Spanish,” Limon said.

Limon, also a parent, said the trend may begin when Wichita kids are in pre-kindergarten programs as they learn English outside of their Spanish-dominant homes.

“I know that, personally, that was the case for my own children,” she said. “They spoke Spanish at home, got to pre-kindergarten, were exposed to the English language and then they just start absorbing that language a lot faster.”

Escarpita and Limon are both children of Mexican immigrants and consider themselves first-generation Americans. Their heritage and roots — especially in language — remain intact. But that influence can fade with the next generation.

“For us, that means we have to work a little bit harder to try to teach Spanish even though we’re already a dual-language magnet. We put a lot of intentional focus on how we can optimize Spanish exposure,” Escarpita said.

That exposure includes listening to the slips of accent differentiating from one teacher to the next.

Horace Mann’s staff hail from the United States, Mexico, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and El Salvador — all bringing their own color to the same vocabulary.

“If one of us is from Mexico, but they’re from Chihuahua, that accent is a little bit different. That really makes our students have that experience of listening and learning about other countries,” Limon said.

Students also have the opportunity to dip into the worlds of other Hispanic or Latino communities with events like “Around the World” or “Folklorico” focusing on a respective country’s history and culture.

Does back-to-school in Horace Mann reflect Wichita families’ needs?

Schools across the country have taken hit after hit since the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic: social distancing requirements, online schooling, nationwide teacher shortages, and the fear of violence erupting in classrooms.

Escarpita said he’s fielding less about major COVID concerns, citing that there is a certain level of trust between parents and the district to act in the best interests of students and staff.

He added that after the Robb Elementary School mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas this past May, he’s been having to answer parents’ questions on how the school and district prepares for the unimaginable.

“‘What is our plan? What do we do in terms of preparation for elementary students?’” he said, repeating questions parents ask.

“That’s been a concern more than ever.”

Limon said she has friends and family regularly check in on her.

“There’s never the perfect or the right thing to say when things like that happen. It does scare us to think about. We do worry, as educators in the classroom,” she said.

However, Limon said Horace Mann families may feel more comfortable to ask questions due to their bilingual staff serving bilingual families, breaking any language barriers.

“We’re here to support them. We reassure them: “we’re here for your child.”

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