Natural Helper Drives Language Learning Legislation

Pam Gemmer knows a thing or two about volunteering. Being a Natural Helper for the Immigrant Welcome Center is just one role among dozens she holds in the community. A retired teacher, Gemmer put her passion for language and learning to work in the 2015 Indiana General Assembly and played a significant role in getting Senate Bill 267 signed into law.

About the bill
Indiana became the ninth in the nation to pass a biliteracy bill, which recognizes students who demonstrate proficiency in two or more languages with a certificate of biliteracy and designation on their transcript after graduation. In the same measure, lawmakers authorized a dual-language immersion pilot program, which will provide grants to elementary schools for instruction to students in two languages simultaneously.

Pam’s journey
Armed with lessons learned from educators who helped pass similar legislation in Illinois and 37 years of teaching language to elementary and high school students, Pam became the bill’s primary advocate. Other positions as the founder of the Indiana Network for Early Language Learning, past committee chair for the same national organization and a member of the Indiana Foreign Language Teachers Association suited her for the role.

After graduating from Broad Ripple High School, the New York native moved to Mexico City to attend National Autonomous University where she later met her husband. Job offers brought the couple and their two sons back to Indianapolis some years later.

After a time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Pam began teaching Spanish emersion classes at Forest Glen Elementary in Lawrence Township. She taught a second language to students in the district and for Indianapolis Public Schools, including many immigrants and refugees, until retiring from Crispus Attucks Medical Magnet High School in 2012.

“As a teacher, I was always sensitive to the state standards for world language,” said Pam.

Pam is quick to point to research that suggests those who speak multiple languages have better connected neurons, a better chance of recovery after brain trauma and other benefits.

“People who are bilingual have a very special gift to offer the Indiana economy,” said Pam. “It makes them more employable in the workforce. Just ask Lilly and Cummins.”

A lesson in the legislative process
Gemmer got her own lesson in the legislative process and how to navigate through an initial hearing of the bill in January, having it amended and passed by the Education Committee, and then seeing the measure passed by the Senate in a 50 to 0 vote.

The Dual Language Emersion Program was added to the bill while in the House of Representatives. Because seed money was required, the measure also had to go through the House Ways and Means Committee.

“We did not have much opposition,” said Gemmer. “It’s a non-political issue. [The certificates] can be administered at a low cost, and schools and students are already paying for testing.”

What’s next?
Pam will attend meetings across the state, including one with the president of the Indiana Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese and the head of Global Learning in Lafayette this week. With additional input and statistics from other states, the Department of Education will develop a test to assess students’ ability to read and understand the second language.

The DOE will also set the criteria for the dual-language learning grants. Qualified programs provide instruction to a portion of the 52,000 K-12 English Language Learner students in Indiana as reported by the Migration Policy Institute. If all goes accordingly, both programs will be approved by the Indiana Education Commission and available next school year.

“We’ll face new hurdles and challenges, but we will make it happen,” Pam said.

Pam will continue her work in the community at the Nationalities Council of Indiana, Mexican Consulate, volunteering at the fire department and library, La Fiesta and many other cultural events and initiatives. She recently arranged for Crispus Attucks students to serve as interpreters at Eskenazi Health.

“Taking bilingual students into the community really warms my heart,” said Pam. “It’s something I believe in passionately. We’re making a greater, more peaceful world to live in.”

Posted in News, Stories of Impact.