Maverick Answers Call to Teach Bilingual Ed at Her First U.S. School

New alumna Denisse Pavlovich is answering the call to teach bilingual education – at the very first school she attended when she arrived in the U.S. 20+ years ago.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024 • Written by Monique Bird :

Photo of Denisse Pavlovich in her clinical teaching classroom (photo taken May 2024)9-year-old Denisse Pavlovich (nee Muñiz) and her mom had only been in the United States for a few days when the September 11 terrorist attacks occurred

I didn’t know any English,” recalls Pavlovich. “Everyone was panicking, and it felt like a scary and uncertain time for the nation.” 

Adding to her confusion, she was set to start the 4th grade at Myrtle T. Thorton Elementary School. But instead of more fear, Pavlovich found a haven

“That year was really helpful,” said Pavlovich, who was placed in a Spanish-language classroom. “My teachers were amazing and helped me adjust.” 

Now, 23 years later, Pavlovich is poised to return to Thorton Elementary – but this time as a teacher supporting bilingual learners.

“It’s like I’m coming back home,” she said.

A Call to Teach 

For Pavlovich, it’s an intentional career move. 

Two grades after arriving to the U.S., she was placed in a class with zero language support. 

It was all Spanish in grades 4 and 5 and then just English in 6th grade. I didn’t understand what was going on,” said Pavlovich, who had been an A-Honor Roll student. “Some of the teachers would get mad because I wouldn’t talk or ask questions.

Her friends, who often translated, became a language lifeline.  

“There wasn’t a dual language program like there is now,” said Pavlovich

“In the past, most bilingual programs were early exit, which meant that the ultimate goal was English, and students were transitioned to English within two to three years,” said Dr. Zulma Mojica Monroy, a UTA assistant professor of bilingual and ESL education. “A high percentage of students transitioned into English when they were not ready and often did not receive support in English classrooms, as was Pavlovich's case.”

The history of bilingual education in the U.S. is lengthy – having grown roots in the Colonial Era – when community needs necessitated non-English instruction. It is believed that Ohio was the first state to implement a bilingual education law – paving the way for instruction in German and English in 1939. Louisiana added French in 1847, and New Mexico joined with Spanish in 1850. However, states began to mandate English-only instruction during the World War I era – as concerns spread about non-English speakers

“Emergent bilingual students who do not participate in bilingual education have significantly higher drop-out rates,” she said. “Furthermore, many students risk losing their home language and cultural heritage.”

“Looking back, I think some of those teachers didn't have a lot of training,” said Pavlovich. “They probably did their best.”

It would take decades for systems to change.

“The new dual-language models aim to promote biliteracy and bilingualism in English and Spanish while maintaining the home language,” said Mojica. Many school districts in Texas have adopted dual-language programs, providing a more structured model. As such, teachers’ professional development and resources in Spanish have increased.” 

It’s a change Pavlovich noticed, too. 

This spring, she got in-classroom experience supporting dual-language learners as a clinical, student teacher at Fort Worth I.S.D. English was slowly introduced

“You have a teacher who can speak your native language and who can help you. Sometimes they get discouraged, and I can tell them that I was in their shoes,” said Pavlovich, adding that she never intended to become a teacher.

Things changed in 2017 when she met future husband, Christopher, a longtime Fort Worth I.S.D. teacher whose now-retired mother was a 27-year veteran teacher

They inspired me to go back,” said Pavlovich, who enrolled at UTA in 2021. "My mother-in-law would say that I would be a great teacher one day or that I should work in education.

Now, Pavlovich is one step closer to that goal. She completed her bachelor’s degree this spring. And she’s accepted an offer to teach bilingual education to 6th graders at Myrtle T. Thorton Elementary Schoolher very first school in the U.S

“I found my calling,” said Pavlovich. “We have a lot of emergent bilingual students, and I know exactly what they are going through. I want to be the teacher I needed during that time.”