Stepping up to the state level

Pettigrew helps break down language barriers

-Submitted photo
Rachel Pettigrew, an English Language Learner teacher for the Fort Dodge Community School District, celebrates the last day of school for the 2022-23 year with some of her students. From left are Melani Cutino Rodriguez, Pettigrew, Kenia Suriano Zepeda, Cesar Suriano Carrillo and Denzel Martinez Bustillo. Pettigrew took on a new role with the Iowa Department of Education this summer.

Editor’s note: This feature first ran in a special publication called Hometown Pride, published June 24, 2023, featuring people and organziations from Fort Dodge and the surrounding area who are making a difference in their communities.

For the past 12 years, Rachel Pettigrew has been serving as the English Language Learner (ELL) teacher for the Fort Dodge Community School District.

Starting this summer, however, she has taken on a new role at the state level, but with the same goal of helping students, families and educators overcome any language barriers that may exist.

Pettigrew has been working with both high school and middle school students, families and staff in her role as ELL instructor.

In her new role, she is serving as education program consultant for Title III and Migrant Programs with the Iowa Department of Education. She began training this summer. Her new position allows her to work from home.

“It’s such a cool opportunity, but it’s also a little bittersweet,” said Pettigrew. “My students and I have become like a family. I have had such great support from the staff here, but it’s such an amazing opportunity. I feel like I will have a much bigger impact.”

Part of her role will be working with different Area Education Agencies and with school districts to navigate all the things that go into working with ELL students and families. She said she’ll serve as a contact point for anyone who needs help dealing with laws, legal documentation and other paperwork.

“It’s a little bit daunting when you think about all the immigrants coming to Iowa. But there are a lot of great people at the state level that I will work with, so I am excited. They can teach me a lot,” she said. “But I am going to miss my students here. That’s the hardest part of walking away from this job.”

Pettigrew will also serve as a contact point when school districts run into questions about coding or funding or testing within their ELL programs. She’ll also help implement professional development for districts and schools centered around ELL training.

However, she won’t be working directly with students any longer.

“I feel like I have the skill set for this new position,” Pettigrew said. “Obviously, I am going to have to learn a lot over the summer. I feel like I am going to be able to be an advocate for immigrants and legislative change. We really need someone in that position to advocate for our students.”

Pettigrew was born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, and her first and only job was for the Fort Dodge district. Along with serving as the ELL instructor, she also taught a couple semesters of French, which was actually the first foreign language she learned.

She’s hopeful that the district will be able to find a replacement for her position, because she said it’s such a vital part of the school.

“My role here was a lot different than I expected it to be,” she said. “I expected to just be a classroom teacher, but it’s really being a liaison for students and families and teachers who want the skills to help ELL students succeed in school.”

Pettigrew said all school districts in Iowa are required by law to have an ELL teacher.

“Every district should understand that immigrant students aren’t just another sub group. They are such a big part of the future of America,” she said. “We need to focus our efforts on helping them become successful.”

Pettigrew said the school district does have one Spanish interpreter, Danitza Cardenas. She works with most of the ELL students and families.

Pettigrew also said the World Language teachers in the district have been a big help to her over the past 12 years.

“We’ve been able to tap into the resources we have to help families, from the counseling department to BRIDGES to the food pantry,” she said. “A lot of times our immigrant families don’t know who to ask for help or what is available. We try to connect those dots.”

Pettigrew and her husband, Tierre, have two sons. She’s excited to be able to spend more time with them while working from home.


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