South Division High School Principal Jose Trejo has a special empathy for his students who are immigrants or speak different languages.
“The immigrant experience is definitely something we have in common,” he said. “It involves coming into a place that’s different, having complete culture shock, then trying to figure out how to navigate the language at the same time you’re trying to master the content.”
More than half South Division’s students have a primary language other than English, and it is the largest bilingual high school in the state. It’s not all Spanish/English either—students speak 26 languages, according to Trejo, who became South Division principal this summer after serving as assistant principal.
Trejo lived the experience as a child when he moved from a small town in Mexico to Davenport, Iowa, and started school in a classroom where nobody spoke Spanish. He was part of a “very tiny” Latino community in the city. “Teachers struggled to help,” he said, but the schools at that time didn’t have any support programs for English language learners.
After graduating from Bay View High School, Trejo moved into working with community nonprofits such as Voces de la Frontera to help other young people gain citizenship. However, he eventually decided education was where he wanted to be to make a difference in the community. After earning his associate degree at MATC, he came to UWM to earn a degree in broad field social studies with certificates in bilingual education and English as a second language. He also earned a master’s degree in administrative leadership.
He chose UWM because of its emphasis on urban education. “Having a community where I was able to be supported and finding the right resources was important for me.” He found support through faculty, fellow students and the Roberto Hernandez Center, he said.
Trejo has maintained connections to UWM through M3 programs. The school is also developing pathways for students to prepare for careers in fields like education and health care, and working with Milwaukee Succeeds to encourage more students to prepare for college placement tests.
He is president of the Wisconsin Association for Bilingual Education and feels strongly about encouraging the diverse languages students bring to South Division. Some of the students, he noted, have their native language and maybe other languages from ethnic groups in their country, languages picked up in migration and refugee camps and English. “I am often amazed at their stories.”
“For us obviously our biggest asset is our students. We have such a diversity of students speaking 26 different languages. I can definitely see the potential of having multilingual teachers coming out of South. We’ve always struggled in Milwaukee and Wisconsin to find enough teachers of color and multilingual teachers.”
- Read about all three awardees with UWM ties in the February 24 3 With UWM Ties Honored for Encouraging Diversity and Inclusion UWM Report article.
- MilMag’s Unity Awards Shine a Light on Milwaukee’s Changemakers Milwaukee Magazine article appeared February 26.
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