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Bilingual Education Student Comes Full Circle

University of St. Thomas junior education student Christina Vargas has a unique perspective on her bilingual-education teacher training. From kindergarten to her sophomore year of high school, Vargas took classes in Spanish and English at the Helms Community Learning Center, a dual-language school that had a unique partnership with UST.

In 1995, UST adopted Helms, a low performing, inner-city school, and helped develop a program to teach students in both English and Spanish. While many Texas schools have transitional programs designed for Spanish-speaking children to learn English quickly, the dual-language program helps students become fluent in both languages. Although the partnership, formerly directed by UST professor of education, Dr. Higinia Torres-Rimbau, is no longer in effect, many UST education students observe classes and student-teach at Helms.

Vargas knew she wanted to be a teacher and chose to attend UST because of the long-standing relationship the University has had with Helms.

“Dr. Rimbau was here and all of my favorite teachers came here,” said Vargas. “The classes are so small that you build relationships with the professors.”

Vargas said she is confident her UST education degree will prepare her for teaching and help her secure a job when she leaves.

As part of Torres-Rimbau’s class “Spanish Literature for Children and Adolescents,” Vargas dressed in overalls with her face painted to read to more than 200 dual-language elementary students at Wharton Elementary in April. Her story “Pedrito Conejo” is the Spanish version of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.”

“I didn’t want to dress up as a bunny so I was the farmer who catches Peter Rabbit stealing his rabanos, his radishes,” said Vargas.

The students listening included Middle Eastern and Asian students, Caucasian students and Hispanic students, all of whom spoke Spanish. 

“I was so surprised to see children from different cultures and different ethnicities,” Vargas said, “And they all spoke Spanish.”

Most of the kids in Vargas’ own dual-language elementary classes at Helms were native Spanish-speakers learning English; however, Vargas was a native English speaker whose Hispanic family didn’t speak Spanish at home. It was her only exposure to the language.

“It was a culture shock because I didn’t grow up in a Spanish-speaking home,” said Vargas.

However, by sixth grade Vargas was fluent and she has a good understanding of Spanish grammar and composition.

“When she started this program, she spoke no Spanish,” Torres-Rimbau said. “Now she’s fluent enough, she’s preparing to teach in Spanish. Being in that program really changed her skill set. It provided her with a level of Spanish that she wouldn’t have learned from her family and that’s why she chose it.”

Torres-Rimbau said 14 schools in the Houston Independent School District have dual-language programs and many suburban districts are beginning to implement the program. Public schools like Helms with dual-language classes have become very popular and the students score at or above the national percentile rate for their grade.

“A lot of English-speaking parents want their kids in that program,” said Torres-Rimbau. “It’s become a magnet program.”

Vargas said knowing two languages has helped her during several jobs, including her current job at Chase Bank.

“The area I’m working in is predominantly Hispanic,” said Vargas. “Everybody speaks Spanish; it’s necessary so I can build rapport with the customers.”

Torres-Rimbau said education students interested in teaching at the elementary level should consider studying bilingual education.

“There is opportunity in the area and it’s a very rewarding thing to be able to teach children, not only in their native language, but to help them become fluent in both,” said Torres-Rimbau.

Even if the education students are not native Spanish speakers, UST has opportunities to become fluent.

“You have to be willing to work at it,” Torres-Rimbau said. “You have four years to become better. We have a lot of study abroad opportunities, so if you’re not fluent, you can plan to become fluent.”

Vargas said she hopes to be back at Helms for her required student observations.

“I want to keep that relationship,” said Vargas. “Who knows, I could be back there teaching one day.”