Driving around Giddings, it’s hard to miss the yellow ‘Giddings Football’ flags flying in front of many homes.
“Football is really big with any small town. The school is the hub of the community, so everyone gets involved,” says Shane Holman, assistant Superintendent for Giddings ISD.
Holman’s lived in Giddings for most of his life. Six years ago, he says, there was a community push for something new: a soccer program.
To him, that’s just one sign of the changing demographics in Giddings’ schools.
“Twenty years ago, Giddings ISD, if you asked people in town, it was a German town, they’d tell you it was a German community. The population was primarily white,” Holman says.
Like many places in Texas, the demographics in Giddings have shifted in recent decades. The number of Hispanic children in the public schools here nearly doubled — to about 55 percent last year.
“We have a large migration of Hispanic population at the same time as white families are having less children,” Holman says.
As part of the same shift, the number of bilingual students has gone from just 4 percent two decades ago to almost 20 percent today.
And some of these students don’t speak much English at all. It’s a school district’s responsibility to make sure they learn the language — but in a small town, finding qualified bilingual teachers to serve those students can be a challenge.
At Giddings Elementary School, Sergio Gon teaches one of two bilingual kindergarten classes.
“If the kid has older brothers and sisters, their English level is good, they are used to speaking in English and Spanish,” Gon says. “But if it’s the first kid in the family, they usually speak only Spanish. The majority of the parents, they don’t speak any English.”
According to state law, if a school district has 20 or more English Language Learner students in a single grade, it is required to offer bilingual education with a certified bilingual teacher.
But Holman says finding bilingual teachers has proven to be “really difficult” in Giddings: There’s been a shortage of certified bilingual teachers in Texas since at least 1990.
If a school district can’t find a qualified teacher, it needs to file for an exemption with the Texas Education Agency. This year, more than half of the public and charter elementary schools in Texas filed an exemption for a bilingual teacher in at least one grade. Giddings filed one for fifth grade.
About seven years ago, Giddings ISD tried a different recruitment tactic to meet the need: recruit teachers from Spanish-speaking countries. That’s how they met Gon and his wife, Karla Monnaco, who teaches third grade at Giddings Elementary.
Gon and Monnaco are from Monterrey, Mexico, which is where they met Giddings ISD administrators at a job fair.
“We had an old dream of emigrating from Mexico,” Gon recalls.
Other Texas school districts also recruit teachers from other countries. But because of the politics around immigration from Mexico, many districts now go to Puerto Rico.
Bilingual kindergarten class is actually conducted almost entirely in Spanish. Gon’s job is to help these kids master basic skills in Spanish as they transition to English in the upper elementary grades.
“When the kid is able to read and speak in his mother language, he is able to make the transition to English, it’s going to be very smooth,” Gon says.
In Monnaco’s third grade class, though, things are a bit different.
This year, Monnaco only has two students who do not speak English. She says it’s good for these students to speak both languages.
“The older kids are just speaking in English, and they don’t have very good communication with their parents, because their parents’ English is limited, so they cannot connect very well with them.”
But Monnaco says she wants her students to thrive — not just survive.
“What you want as a bilingual teacher is to fill those gaps that they have and fill it so they can feel like they fit and they are successful and they want to be part of the community, not just in the classroom.”
Moving to Giddings was an adjustment for both Monnaco and Gon.
“In Monterrey at that time we had three or four million people,” Monnaco says.
Giddings, in contrast, has a population of about 5,000.
“You are used to [having] everything in a big city,” says Gon. “But the first thought was, this is a really small town. But we started traveling all around. You need to get used to the way people live in small towns — but that was something we had to learn.”
They also brought their two young daughters, who had an easier time adjusting. Both learned English quickly — mostly because they were enrolled in bilingual classes.
“It was very welcoming for them, so that helped us to have a smooth beginning. I think if we were being in a big city, I don’t know. This would be a very different story,” Monnaco says.
After seven years of living in the U.S. on temporary visas sponsored by the school district, Monnaco and Gon got their green cards last year. But they’re still adjusting to living in the U.S. Right now they’re learning how to navigate the college financial aid process with their oldest daughter.
“Now we are learning the transfer process, now we’re learning the loan process, the grant process, scholarships. So everything is new,” Monnaco says with a sigh.
“It’s a new challenge,” says Gon. “We are always learning every day, and we are new in everything.”
Learning something new — it’s something their students experience too. As teachers, knowing how that feels can be helpful.
As Gon finishes up story time in his classroom, he takes the opportunity to remind his students why they’re all there.
“Todos estamos aprendiendo hablar inglés, ok?” he says.
He repeats himself in English. “Everybody can learn how to speak English! Ok? Muy bien.”