Credit: John Fensterwald / EdSource.
Guillermo Nava Prada critiques Ms. Gomez' pronunciation of his name.

When they cross the stage to receive their diplomas, high school students want to hear their full names read correctly. As anyone who has felt the sting will attest, a mangled pronunciation can mar a special moment of celebration – whether a christening, wedding or high school graduation.

But getting it right can be a challenge, especially in California high schools, a bouillabaisse of cultures and languages with complex syllables, tongue-bending accents and un-phonetic spellings and where individual teachers see upward of 175 students every day. That’s a lot of names to memorize.

At William C. Overfelt High in East San Jose, where students speak a dozen languages at home, Principal Vito Chiala (kee-ah-lah) understands the importance of exact pronunciations.

Listen to the EdSource radio story, featuring Chiala, Gomez and her pronunciation conversation with two college-bound graduates, Alexis Oswaldo Mendez Castellanos (UC Merced) and Guillermo Nava Prada (Cal State East Bay), here:

“Our students come from so many different backgrounds. The only way to truly recognize them and honor them is to call them by the name they want to be called,” he said. “Here at Overfelt, if you don’t know a student’s name you are not going to get a lot of respect from them.”

Vito Chiala has been principal of Overfelt High School in the East Side Union High School District in San Jose for eight years.

Credit: John Fensterwald / EdSource.

Vito Chiala has been principal of Overfelt High School in the East Side Union High School District in San Jose for eight years.

Seniors at Overfelt have a tradition of honoring teachers who have had the biggest impact on them by selecting them to read their names at graduation. During rehearsal, one of the readers, Natalia Gomez, a popular history teacher and leader of the academic skills course AVID, went down rows of students, pad in hand, writing down the phonetic spelling of each name. For example, Nguyen, a common Vietnamese name, is wen for some, “nuhWEN for others.

Gomez, whose maiden name is Baldwin, was called Nah-tah-LEE and NATE-ahl-yah by teachers in high school and is sensitive to the feelings of students like Daena Valencia Samora, whose teachers tended to call her Diana instead of Day-eh-na. “It’s been pronounced wrong my whole life,” she said. “I would try to correct at the start of the year, but, whatever, I got used to it. I felt special when somebody finally said it right.”

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