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Speak, Write, Read: Bilinguals Seal The Deal

Washoe County  School District / Facebook

Washoe County School District / Facebook

Alice Daniel | The California Report

Guidance counselor Agustina Sanchez yells out the names of 27 seniors at Dinuba High School.

“Elizabeth!” she calls, as she goes down the list. “Daisy!”

They get in line to pick up their biliteracy medals. It’s just one more task in the hubbub of today’s graduation rehearsal.

“Can we wear these tonight?” one student asks.

“You can wear ’em,” says Sanchez.

Tonight is the real graduation for this small town high school about 35 miles southeast of Fresno. These students will wear the medals around their necks when they pick up their diplomas, which also have the special seal of biliteracy.

To receive the award, students have to meet certain criteria. These include passing English classes and the state English language test and getting either a 3.0 on an Advanced Placement foreign language exam or a 3.0 or higher in foreign language classes.

It’s a recent effort by the state of California to formally recognize students who are proficient in more than one language.

Daisy Del Rio speaks Spanish and English. When she learned there was an award for bilingualism at Dinuba High School, she says she became dead set on getting it.

“I was in the office daily asking, ‘Hey am I going to get it? Am I going to get it?’ I got it. Oh, it’s such an accomplishment to me. I’m first generation Mexican-American. I felt this was something I needed to pursue and something I needed to achieve.”

Del Rio says she wanted the seal because she’s seen her immigrant parents toil to make her life better. Her mom works in a packing house; her dad is a truck driver.

“Just seeing them work hard every day, come home, taking off their boots, that alone inspires me,” she says.

Del Rio, who is the youngest of three children, has also worked hard. This summer she’s heading to American University in Washington, D.C. to study political science.

“It’s up to me to be the first one to go to college in my family,” she says.

She’s proud of her dual heritage and says the seal signifies the value of California’s diversity.

“It exemplifies who you are, what your culture is,” she says.

Laurie Olsen, an expert on English-learner education, agrees. “It suddenly gives [students] a sense of not being stigmatized for having those other languages and that this is being recognized now,” she says.

Olsen is on the board of Californians Together, the organization that convinced California to become the first state to adopt the seal of biliteracy. That was in 2011; since then, nine other states have joined the ranks and 11 more are in the process.

“This idea has taken off with great energy,” Olsen says. “It’s amazing that it came from California, which was the state that gave birth to the English-only movement.”

She’s referring to Proposition 227, which was passed in 1998 and all but ended bilingual education. The focus then was on English immersion. But the tide may be changing. A measure to repeal most of that proposition is on the 2016 ballot.

Meanwhile, at least 198 K-12  school districts statewide have adopted the seal of biliteracy. And many schools are trying to figure out how to help more kids earn it.

“It’s opening up the question of where are the programs that are going to lead to bilingual proficiency,” says Olsen.

Dinuba High School guidance counselor Agustina Sanchez says schools also see the practicality in the award.

“When you walk into any job interview in college you’re able to put it into a binder and say: ‘Well would you like to see proof?'”

She says Velázquez Press sponsored the medals for her students. Each year, the company donates 5,000 medals free of charge.  “A lot of districts want to do it but just don’t have the budget,” says Velázquez Press CEO Arthur Chou. “Our rule is we want to make this happen.”

About 50,000 students in California have earned the seal, says Olsen.  But that’s not taking into account this year’s students, some of whom haven’t yet graduated.

“The most wonderful thing is going to the award ceremonies where the seals are being given out,” Olsen says. “And seeing the way in which families, whole communities turn out and the tremendous pride they feel at just having it be said and recognized that there is enormous skill to language proficiency.”

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