If you round the corner of 35th and National on Milwaukee’s south side, you’ll see a small church. The red brick, intricate stained glass, and stately tower that seems to come out of the middle ages stands out among the corner stores and tightly-woven homes. Attached to, but separate from, the church is El Puente High School.
El Puente has been in existence for 20 years now. The school provides a small, safe educational setting that values the whole student. In January, El Puente will be sending about 20 students to take courses at the local technical college, MATC. Each student will take their traditional high school classes in the morning before heading off to MATC in the afternoons. If you talk to the students who are participating in the program for the first time, you’ll notice that they are approaching the start of classes with ambivalence. They are excited, but nervous about stepping through the doors of a college classroom for the first time.
The program, according to El Puente staff, began in an effort “to encourage Latino students to graduate on time by both closing the achievement gap and increasing post-secondary education enrollment and completion,” and has garnered support from the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the Ford Motor Company Fund, earning the high school a Ford Driving Dreams grant.
Many students who participate in the Ford Driving Dreams program are multilingual, first-generation college students who have concerns about the challenges of navigating a college-level English course for the first time. For some students, they are unsure of the academic workload, but for others, becoming fluent in the language of academia is a distinct challenge that complicates their interactions inside and outside of the school building. Not only will the language of academia be different from the multilingual world of El Puente and many student homes, but being able to efficiently use this additional dialect adds another dimension to responsibly and efficiently translanguaging between home and school.
Finding a pathway for students to experience the college classroom became a focus for El Puente due to the gap in graduation rates between Hispanic and other youth in Wisconsin. Education data from the Department of Public Instruction indicates that, in 2017, 81% of Hispanic students in Wisconsin graduated high school within four years, while the average rate across all races was 89.2%. The data shows that Hispanic youth are still graduating at lower rates than the average Wisconsin student. Even though the dropout rates are decreasing and college enrollment is increasing for Wisconsin’s Hispanic students, they are still falling behind their counterparts.
El Puente’s dual-enrollment program has been running for a few years now, and it provides students with an opportunity to experience college, tuition-free, and with the support of not only family and friends, but also their high school teachers. El Puente is more than just the bridge in name. It is a place where translanguaging can happen freely, and the multiple tiers of support for students exist to help them create bridges within the multifaceted world of language. This program provides a space with “models for collaboration and positive views of bilingualism despite monolingualized English writing constraints” (Alvarez 4-5), which helps students enhance their ability to effectively translanguage within multiple spheres, in this case, home, high school, and college.
For students to be language brokers of “generational expectations, motivations, and languages, communicating in different contexts in their communities” (Alvarez xvi) when they, themselves, are discovering the hidden rules and expectations of college, is demanding. By participating in a dual-enrollment program, these students are provided with additional support at the high school, where teachers can help students navigate the expectations of college, linguistically and otherwise. Teachers can also act as a language (and educational system) broker by helping parents stay up-to-date on their child’s progress, as well as what needs to happen for the student to be successful.
Although the idea of attending college classes while in high school is often greeted with some uncertainty from students, almost every student finds success when given a space to explore the complex language negotiations they may face, as well as the support needed to manage the additional linguistic demands of the academic world.
According to one junior I spoke with, who will be taking an MATC English course in the spring, “I’ll be entering MATC and earning college credits for a head start in life, to get some experience and to be able to support my family when I finally become an adult and have a good paying job. I want to be successful in life and make my family, teachers, and close friends proud.” Many students feel this way, and providing them guidance as they build upon their linguistic and educational repertoire and find ways to fine-tune their “translanguaging strategies with different audiences” (Alvarez 66) is a key step in helping students see college as an accessible place.