An Interview with Susanne Peña, Project DL STEPS Manager

The state of Florida has a diverse demographic, with almost a quarter of the population from Hispanic descent. That being said, a concern has been raised regarding the lack of bilingual education offered statewide. Susanne Peña, through her participation with the Steps Program, is working to change this concern. Having reaped the benefits of a bilingual education personally, Peña is aware of all the benefits that comes from dual language programs, especially in places where the Latino community is so eminent.

Peña grew up in a bilingual household in Puerto Rico. Her mother, raised bilingual in The Bronx, New York, saw how imperative it was to know more than one language. As a result, Peña went to a dual language school her entire life; there, she not only mastered both English and Spanish but she was able to even learn French. The school’s philosophy was biliteracy, biculturism and bilingualism. Through her personal and educational experience, biliteracy has become a part of who she is, as it is something she has known her entire life.

Photo for Featured Article: An Interview with Susanne Penna, Project DL STEPS Manager

Peña attended Penn State University with a scholarship; during her time at Penn State, she started to feel a need to represent herself as a Puerto Rican.

Peña saw how imperative it is to not only be proud of your heritage but also embrace bilingualism.

She became remarkably involved throughout campus, especially within the Latino community. Not only did she DJ the only Spanish radio show on the campus, but she also pledged the largest Latina sorority, Sigma Lambda Gamma.

Following her time at Penn State, Peña decided to continue to pursue her education. She moved to New York to attend law school, yet after attending, she realized her passions landed in the education field. Returning to school, Peña earned her first masters in elementary education.

Continue to the next page to learn more about Peña’s journey and powerful impact …

Peña taught in New York for various years and, while her classroom was not a designated dual language classroom, the strategies she brought and her care for students left her often teaching the students deemed as English learners.

Photo for Featured Article: An Interview with Susanne Penna, Project DL STEPS Manager

She eventually moved to an elementary school in Harlem, where she solidified her passion for bilingual education. The principal at the time, Dr. Peter McFarlane, helped guide her decision to earn her second masters in school leadership. Upon her return to school, it became apparent that Dr. McFarlane had actually wanted to implement a dual language program at the school. Hearing this news led Peña to also receive a certificate in bilingual education.

When Peña finished receiving her certificate, she became the dual language coordinator. This job was perfect for her.

As the coordinator, Peña knew she could provide the students with a similar experience as the one she had with dual language education. She was determined to provide her students with the most prestigious education she could offer so they could see the true benefits of a bilingual education.

Her high performance with these schools led her to become the director of ESL bilingual programs and world languages for the Amityville District. There, she made an impact by not only focusing on the kids but also including the parents in their children’s educations.

Having seen her impact in New York, Peña decided to move and start working somewhere where the dual language world was barely starting to take off.

Continue to the next page to learn more about Peña’s journey and powerful impact …

Upon her arrival to Florida, Peña was shocked to see that a state so heavily impacted by Latinos did not have much to offer within the dual language field. When she first arrived, she attempted to transfer all previous credential and degrees to the state. Unfortunately, her bilingual certificate could not transfer because Florida had no such thing. Not too long after arriving to Florida, Peña met Dr. Joyce Nutta who also shared a concern at the lack of bilingual education within the state.

Dr. Joyce Nutta was the coordinator for the Steps Program, a 5-year, $2.6 million grant given by the office of English language acquisition by the US Department of Education. This project is multi-faceted with various goals wanting to be achieved.

Having been involved at the time, Dr. Joyce Nutta invited Peña to also take part in the project knowing that her qualifications would make her an asset to the team.

Photo for Featured Article: An Interview with Susanne Penna, Project DL STEPS Manager

Among these goals is the preparation of 100 qualified teachers through partnerships with the University of Central Florida, as well creating professional learning communities and providing professional development in their partner schools. The program also hopes to raise parent engagement by offering resources to help parents become involved, such as homework helplines. The last goal is to provide the state with groundbreaking research that will help more schools see the benefits of a dual language education.

So far, the turnover has been quick, with schools being more than eager to participate. Schools are welcoming the Steps Program in with open arms and the have had an overwhelmingly amazing response from all their partner schools thus far.

Continue to the next page to learn more about Peña’s journey and powerful impact …

Peña believes part of the reason that Florida has had hesitation with bilingual programs in the past is due to the fact that if programs are not implemented correctly, or if resources are not allocated correctly, the program will not be successful.

She also believes that there is a lack of knowledge over the amazing benefits that come with having a dual language education. She believes that through the success of the Steps Program, news will spread of all the great things bilingualism has to offer.

This unique program has given teachers and students alike the ability to see that they are not alone in this journey. Having such a wide range of partner schools for the program, it has been interesting to see how every school has similar needs but also a completely different need. This grant has given the ability to customize everything to meet the needs of every individual school.

Peña’s passion for dual language education is clear, as she loves learning about the different ways dual language has been implemented in schools across the country. She feeds off sharing intellectual exchange with colleagues across the nation. She is always looking to see in what ways she can better the education of the students in order for them to get the most out of their dual language education.

Angela Palmieri
Author: Angela Palmieri

Angela Palmieri is the founding teacher of a Spanish dual language immersion program in Glendale, California. She currently teaches sixth grade language immersion and has been an educator for eighteen years. She traveled to New Zealand on the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching in 2016 to research and document the cultural practices taught in Maōri-medium schools. Angela holds a Master’s degree in Educational Administration from the Principal Leadership Institute at UCLA, a Master’s degree in Reading and Language Education, as well as a Bachelor’s degree in Urban Learning Education from CSULA. Ms. Palmieri is currently a doctoral student in the Educational Leadership Program at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Ms. Palmieri was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela, to Italian immigrant parents, and speaks Spanish and Italian fluently. She is a social justice-driven advocate for bilingual and indigenous language education and is an avid traveler. Angela travelled to China and Mongolia on a Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad grant in June and July of 2018.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *