Aurora math teacher Susan Holloway was fired up when Colorado last year created a new recognition for multilingual students.
But few new districts have taken on the work. Aurora isn’t yet offering the new seal of biliteracy. So Holloway took it upon herself to help 15 seniors at her school win the recognition.
The point was to “acknowledge those scholars” at Aurora Central High School, Holloway said. “We knew we had them, we just had to find them.”
Officials from three districts that pioneered the work to recognize biliteracy before the state passed the law touted one of the big benefits of a seal of biliteracy was its potential to transform a perception of students who speak English as a second language. Rather than being seen as deficient or lagging, they can be recognized for possessing an additional asset — and in becoming literate in English and another language, they actually have more to offer.
Districts that have been doing the work the longest, in Denver, Adams 14 and Eagle, worked to create pathways to prepare students from a young age to reach a high level of fluency in two languages. Holloway said she knows that even if her school lacks those pathways, it had more than 15 students who are biliterate.
But for last school year she set out to find those who were closest to already meeting the requirements of the seal.
Holloway set up criteria and took a day off from class to dig through student data among those students who were high performing in reading and writing. One of the requirements to earn the seal as an addition to the high school diploma is demonstration of proficiency in English.
Holloway worked with an assistant principal and a district administrator to find a test for literacy and fluency in Spanish, which the school was able to purchase. Every one of the students who took the Spanish test passed it.
“I was really fired up to make it happen,” said Holloway. “It just took someone who kind of had the big picture of what was required. I just pushed on until it happened.”
As a board member for the Colorado Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Holloway had also helped push for the seal of biliteracy through the Legislature.
Holloway’s district, Aurora Public Schools, is one of the most diverse in the state, serving students with a background in more than 160 languages.
A district official who helped Holloway’s work at Aurora Central did not respond to requests for comment, but a spokesman said in writing that it was too soon to talk about district level plans.
“Changing direction — that just takes a while,” Holloway said. “The next step for all schools would be to make sure their language departments are whole and strong. For people who are already native speakers, the counselors need to be educated to say you should take that class. We have to have the systems in place.”
For now Holloway said all she can do in Aurora is to continue providing information to students and to other educators who might be interested.
Elsewhere, just a handful of other educators are moving ahead. Officials in the Greeley-Evans school district are in the early stages of plans to offer the seal, but Brian Lemos, the director of instruction and English language development talked about why his district is interested, and how he hoped they might be able to start.
“We have multiple students that are bilingual and we really feel that that’s an asset, so we need to be able to honor that asset,” Lemos said.
Lemos said that changes in district leadership and other priorities have caused delays, but he’s expecting arrangements will start coming together more this year.
“Now we’re really thinking about what does it mean and how do we start getting students on that track,” Lemos said. He is analyzing which students are taking what classes to see how many could already meet the minimum requirements.
If Greeley does move forward, Lemos also wants to make sure students and families understand early on the requirements and the benefits of pursuing the credential.
In Eagle County Schools, one of the three districts that began offering the seal in 2015, officials say they are hearing anecdotally that students who have already earned the seal have seen benefits.
“Students have said that the seal has been a huge part of helping them to stand out in applications and getting interviews (for many different things),” said Jessica Martinez, the district’s Director of Multilingual Education. “We have had students comment that they thought that having the seal was one of the biggest reasons they got a job, and that employers are very interested in the seal when they interview.”
Some of the other benefits have been slow to materialize. Officials had hoped colleges might recognize the seal to help place students higher in language courses, or that students might be able to use it to fulfill language requirements.
“Our understanding is that there are so few districts who are using this so far, that it hasn’t yet gained the attention of colleges yet,” said a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Higher Education.
Holloway’s hopes for her students are simpler.
“I hope, No. 1, that it allows them to know just how good they are, she said. “This is above the high school level. It’s an advanced level of proficiency. I hope it invites them to participate in our world and I hope it helps to get them a job and that they take that whole understanding of their global citizenship with them.”