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Graduates of DPS's Bruce Randolph School in 2010 (John Lebya, The Denver Post).

Graduates of DPS’s Bruce Randolph School in 2010 (John Lebya, The Denver Post).

State board votes down resolution supporting new ‘seal of biliteracy’ on high school diplomas

The State Board of Education on Thursday rejected a resolution supporting seals of biliteracy, endorsements attached to high school diplomas and transcripts signaling students are proficient in English and at least one other language.

The board voted 5-2 against the resolution, which would have applauded three Colorado districts that have adopted seals of biliteracy and encouraged other districts to follow suit. Four Republicans and one Democrat opposed it.

Several said they support biliteracy, but cited a litany of concerns that led them to vote no — from a lack of uniform standards for defining proficiency to questions about the movement’s origins and worries about data privacy.

“We are being asked to support as a board something that is without standards to be put on a diploma,” said Colorado Springs Republican board chairman Steve Durham, who initially urged the board to put off the vote.

Nothing is stopping districts from moving forward with seals of biliteracy; the resolution was primarily a gesture.

In interviews Thursday with Chalkbeat, superintendents from the three districts that have jointly developed requirements to award seals of biliteracy expressed disappointment the board rejected a nonbinding resolution recognizing students’ hard work toward gaining skills considered critical for success in a global economy.

“It’s really unfortunate,” said Pat Sanchez, superintendent of the Commerce City-based Adams 14 district. “Not supporting this resolution sends the message that you don’t value bilingualism. The standards are well-defined and very clear. How is having two languages a deficit? …. It’s unfortunate these things become politicized and made into something else.”

By the numbers

More than 700 students from Adams 14, Denver Public Schools and Eagle County are either working toward or already have proven themselves worthy of a seal of biliteracy. District officials say the road is rigorous, requiring high scores on tests measuring English literacy and world language fluency — or other measures if good tests don’t exist for languages students have mastered.

Fourteen states have adopted seals of biliteracy since California became the first in 2011, and others are considering it.

Because Colorado is a local control state, decisions about adopting seals of biliteracy rest in districts’ hands. The three districts leading the charge in Colorado — all of which introduced the seals this year — envision their approach as a model for others.

Jason Glass, superintendent of the Eagle County district, said the board’s rejection of the resolution will not alter that course.

“We don’t really want or need their approval to move forward,” Glass said. “I had some concerns that if the state started mucking around in it, they would start to over-regulate it and politicize it. We think the best thing for our kids is to leave our schools multilingual, and we think the seal of biliteracy is a great way of recognizing kids with those skills.”

State board member Jane Goff, an Arvada Democrat, proposed the board resolution, calling it an opportunity to honor kids and encourage schools and districts without investing any state money or creating new mandates.

Other board members, however, rattled off questions and concerns. Pam Mazanec, a Larkspur Republican, said that she supports biliteracy and the seal “probably has good intentions.” But she said she was unsure about “this particular movement” and was not ready to back the resolution. Groups in California have spearheaded the drive to bring seals of biliteracy to other states.

Parker Republican Debora Scheffel raised unspecified concerns about data, questioned how biliteracy is defined and noted that PARCC tests are one possible yardstick of English literacy. Scheffel vigorously opposes the tests, now entering their second year.

Democrat Val Flores of Denver — who like other “no” votes hailed the merits of biliteracy — said the issue was a local one.

Sanchez, the Adams 14 superintendent, dismissed board members who talk up biliteracy while voting down the resolution.

“What you say is one thing, and how you act is what shows what you really mean,” he said. “The walk doesn’t match the talk.”

Top languages DPS students are pursuing for seals of bilteracy |

  • Spanish – 434
  • French – 62
  • Chinese (Mandarin) – 19
  • Arabic – 13
  • Japanese – 12

Big push from DPS

No district is more invested in the seal of biliteracy than Denver Public Schools. District officials say 631 students have applied for the seal, and 81 have met the criteria and are ready to graduate with a seal and win recognition on honors night.

Not surprisingly, the largest single bloc of students are seeking seals in English and Spanish. But at least one DPS student is pursuing one in a Native American language, with the district relying on a tribal elder to help determine proficiency, said Darlene LeDoux, a DPS instructional superintendent who previously headed the district’s English learner programs .

The three districts working together researched seals of biliteracy adopted by districts around the country to make sure their standards were high, rigorous and achievable for students, LeDoux said.

“It takes a lot of work,” she said. “There is a lot to it. We are talking about students who have a very strong grasp of the language and the culture. It helps the students be better prepared for college and career. I know, you hear that all the time. But we have organizations coming to DPS asking us for people who can speak different languages so they can hire them now.”

That list of prospective employers includes health care providers, educational institutions, businesses and the FBI, which contacted the district looking for Chinese speakers, DPS officials said. LeDoux said the three school districts also are working with colleges on a formal agreement that would allow students to skip low-level language courses in colleges, saving families money.

DPS Acting Superintendent Susana Cordova said Thursday the district is disappointed in the board’s rejection of the resolution.

“It’s a missed opportunity for our state,” said Cordova, who is fluent in English and Spanish. “It’s unfortunate because Colorado has been a real leader in education. I’m disappointed we are not leading in this case.”

State board could revisit the issue

Durham, the state board chairman, said he may reconsider his position if more defined standards for seals of biliteracy are developed. He indicated state lawmakers may be working on a bill that would do so. No such bill has been introduced yet.

Legislation or not, about 70 students in the Eagle County district are pursuing a seal of biliteracy before graduation this spring.

Within a decade, the district hopes that 90 percent of its kids will know at least two languages, said Glass, the superintendent. The vote Thursday against a resolution supporting the work of those kids and the district will not change anything, he said.

“I’ve sort of given up trying to figure out what this state board is going to do,” Glass said. “They seem to make a lot of random and head-scratching decisions, and with any number of rationales to support those decisions.”

The three Colorado districts awarding seals of biliteracy have developed these requirements: