seal of disapproval

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

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

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:

look up

Memphis high school’s prized planetarium still needs upgrades, but students are already fascinated by what it can do

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Principal Tisha Durrah, left, inspects a part of the planetarium that projects constellations and planets onto the large white dome screen at Craigmont High School.

Keshawn Glover remembers hearing his dad talk about field trips to Craigmont High School’s planetarium decades ago, but last week the high school senior got to experience the school’s crown jewel for himself.

Sitting back in chairs built in the 1970s, Glover leaned back with his class to watch a video that took them deep into the inner workings of a plant cell on a large immersive dome-shaped screen that spreads out above and around them.

“It feels like you’re in a roller coaster,” said Glover, a senior. “I was just amazed because it was my first time seeing it work full speed.”

The planetarium, nestled behind a door near the school’s gymnasium, shut down in 2010 after a longtime instructor retired. The equipment languished, but last week, $100,000 in restorations were completed. The work still isn’t done — a stronger audio system and better lighting are still needed. In addition, some of the features are still analog and not digital, and the huge screen desperately needs cleaning. But the school’s prized possession is up and running.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Craigmont High School senior Keshawn Glover, left, with science teacher Wayne Oellig at the planetarium’s control center.

The planetarium is more than just a nice feature, educators say. It helps garner student interest in careers they might not have known about before, such as astronomy and aerospace engineering.

“I don’t feel like our kids are exposed to all the opportunities out there for them,” said Wayne Oellig, a science teacher at Craigmont High School who has been the school’s point person on finding ways to connect curriculum to the planetarium.

“The space industry is really growing now,” he continued. “I tell my students, ‘You might be able to have a job in space when you’re older.’”

Paying for the project has been a collaborative effort. Shelby County Schools covered the startup operational costs from money allocated to school board members to fund projects of their choice. Teresa Jones, whose district includes Craigmont High, also galvanized other board members to use some of their school project money. Finally, alumni of the Raleigh-area high school continue to raise money to cover the nearly $25,000 needed to bring the theater up to 21st-century standards.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Planet rotation around the sun are projected through here to the large white dome screen.

Oellig compared the planetarium experience to the 1990s cartoon TV show “Magic School Bus,” where a class of students learned from experience — from venturing inside a human body to understand a cold, to traveling to the Amazon River to study frogs. “It’s kinda like Ms. Frizzle, but all around you.”


From our archives: With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students


Oellig said the planetarium’s benefits extend far beyond science. History teachers can show videos designed for the giant screen that take students onto a historic battlefield as if they were there. A Spanish teacher wants to show what the night sky would have looked like to ancient Mayans and how those constellations informed culture.

And that matters to students like Glover.

Usually, “we’re either looking at a textbook or a presentation on a projector,” he said. “But to get out of the classroom but still be in a learning environment would really capture our attention, whatever subject it is.

“It will make students even more interested in it. And the more interested we are in it, the better our grades are and we’ll do better on tests,” he said.

Are Children Learning

Chicago is sending more high schoolers to college — but how to get them to graduate?

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel / Chalkbeat
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, CPS CEO Janice Jackson, and other city officials convened at Michele Clark Magnet High School in the Austin neighborhood to announce the latest college enrollment statistics.

Senior Tanariya Thompson, 17, said she and her friends at Michele Clark Magnet High School are constantly asking each other about where they want to go to college. But they’re not just talking, they’re doing their research, too.

“In a lot of our seminar classes I see more kids on the computers applying for colleges instead of just sitting there looking or saying, ‘I ain’t going to college,’” she said. “We’re serious: We want to go to a college so we can become somebody. Next week, I will have my top three.”

Chicago Public Schools released data today showing that more students than ever before are enrolling in college. The mayor and district officials announced the encouraging figures on the West Side, at Michele Clark High School, where students said they’ve seen more energy, excitement and urgency among their peers around the idea of enrolling at college.

The data shows that 1,000 more Chicago Public School graduates from the Class of 2017 enrolled in college compared with 2016, a 4.8 percent increase and the biggest one-year jump in nearly a decade.

Chicago still has a problem with public school graduates staying in and completing college. In 2016, just 18 percent of ninth graders were projected to attain a bachelor’s degree within six years of high school graduation, and four-year college graduation rates have remained pretty stagnant since 2009, according to a fall 2017 report by the UChicago Consortium on School Research. (The report didn’t calculate two-year degree attainment).

But Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the latest enrollment data “an incredible statement about where Chicago Public School students are,” adding that nearly 90 percent of high school freshmen were on track for graduation.

“Every time they walk around and say, ‘not those kids, not from that school, not that background, not that ZIP code, not that family’ — you come here to Michele Clark and you tell these kids that,” Emanuel said, knocking on the wooden podium before him for emphasis.  “You guys have proved them wrong every step of the way.”

From 2010 to 2017, the college enrollment rate increased from 53.7 percent to 64.6 percent, according to the school district.  Officials credited everything from partnerships with OneGoal and other organizations focused on getting kids to and through college, to a summer text messaging campaign to nudge graduates toward completing action items along the enrollment path, and scholarships to city colleges for students who attain a B average or higher.

They also noted a shift in perspective.

“I think it’s because people have become more serious,” said Michele Clark Principal Charles Anderson. “I’ve seen it in action with people doing more college trips, people getting out to scholarship fairs, students having a different mindset.”

From 2016 to 2017, college enrollment rates for African-American and Latino students improved by 2.3 percentage points and 7.2 percentage points, respectively, according to the school district. The African-American college enrollment rate increased from 55.4 percent in 2016 to 57.7 in 2017, and the Hispanic college enrollment rate leaped from 59 percent in 2016 to 66.2 percent in 2017, according to district data.

Flanked by Chicago schools chief Janice Jackson and City Colleges Chancellor Juan Salgado, Emanuel said, “it used to be as a system, we were done just getting you to high school graduation, and our responsibility was over,” but now it’s different. The mayor added, “the biggest transformation is the mindset not just of our kids, but of the system.”

“It’s why we’re also making sure we set a goal that by 2019, every child has a plan for what comes next,” Emanuel said, alluding to a new CPS graduation requirement that demands every student “has a meaningful planning conversation with an adult, and graduates with a plan to map out their future.”

The data indicate more students are enrolling at City College of Chicago.

The district said 5.8 percent more students enrolled at city colleges in 2017 compared with the previous year. Of district graduates who attended two-year colleges in 2017, 84.5 percent enrolled at city colleges compared with 78.7 the previous year, according to the district. City Colleges Chancellor Juan Salgado praised the mayor and schools chief’s leadership, saying CPS’ gains were strong steps toward officials’ goals of “a more inclusive economy,” in Chicago.

“We also want to make sure that each of you has in a role in this economy, whether it’s downtown, or in our health-care centers, or at a logistics company, or engineering or manufacturing company or a tech company,” Salgado told the students. “This city will have a place for you.”

Officials said the climbing college enrollment rate mirrored the increasing number of district students earning high school diplomas, and also reflected district students’ overall strong academic progress. Yet the percent of students who enrolled in college in 2015 and were still enrolled the following year, 72.3 percent of graduates, is actually down slightly compared with 2010, when it was 72.8 percent.

That — and the low rates of Chicago Public School students who eventually graduate with a two- or four-year degree — are worrisome figures.

Furthermore, African-American and Latino students and students with disabilities still graduate from high school, enroll in and graduate from college at lower rates than the general population. It’s a sobering reminder of inequities in the school system.

Officials acknowledged that work remains to get more students to and through college.

That point that wasn’t lost on Michele Clark senior Naquanis Hughes, 17, who wants to study business in college but is still undecided on where. Hughes said staff, students, and even alumni offer this encouragement about getting through the hard knocks that some students encounter in higher education:

“If you come to a hard place, don’t just fall down, don’t just give up, keep pushing yourself.”