Eighty-three students lined up one-by-one at southeast Fresno’s Sunnyside High School, shuffling toward the auditorium stage to claim their medallions.
Written in all caps in shiny royal blue and gold, the medals screamed their significance: SEAL OF BILITERACY.
Teresa Vásquez, who teaches English language development at the school, introduced the students and the meaning of their accomplishment during an awards banquet for graduating seniors in May. Each name she read aloud elicited whoops from the audience, which flowed out the double doors and into the lobby. On the wide stage, bilingual students filled three rows.
“¿Qué es biliteracy?” she asked the audience. “What is biliteracy? The bottom line is, are you bilingual and bicultural?”
It’s not just a medal. A gold seal of biliteracy goes on each student’s diploma or transcript as official proof that they can speak, read and write in more than one language. And since California became the first state to adopt the seal in 2012, its use has thrived in the culturally rich central San Joaquín Valley.
It has become a big sense of pride for our kids.
Maria Maldonado, assistant superintendent at Fresno Unified School District
Close to 600 graduates in Fresno, Madera, Kings and Tulare counties received the seal of biliteracy the first year it was offered. Madera schools did not submit data in 2014, the last year it was collected statewide, and the state did not collect data in 2013.
In 2014, the three other counties graduated close to 700 students with the seals. Those students are fluent in languages including Korean, Hmong, Spanish, Turkish, French and American Sign Language. Statewide, around 50,000 students graduated with seals in the first three years.
Recognizing multilingual students appears to be a trend that’s catching on. Since 2011 when Californians Together convinced the state to adopt the seal of biliteracy, 10 others have joined in and 14 more are working toward implementing it.
Students must meet certain criteria to receive the award. That includes passing English classes, the state English-language arts test and, if their primary language is not English, the state English language development test. Students can demonstrate proficiency in other languages a few different ways, including getting a score of three or higher on an Advanced Placement foreign language exam or at least a 3.0 GPA in foreign language classes.
María Maldonado, assistant superintendent at Fresno Unified School District overseeing English learner services, said the seal of biliteracy was initially implemented to help potential employers recognize bilingual students. But later it became clear that the seals contribute to students’ sense of value.
“It’s the fact that there is a recognition for students who are able to speak a second language,” she said. “And it’s not only that they are recognized by a letter grade, but they are actually called out on something like that. It has become a big sense of pride for our kids.”
Alejandro Guillén, 18, graduated from Sunnyside in the spring. He took four years of AP Spanish to receive the seal of biliteracy.
Guillén’s parents understand English but speak only Spanish. He typically responds to them in English, though he already knew how to speak, read and write conversational Spanish before starting the classes.
Academic Spanish, including the expanded vocabulary necessary to write three-page essays, was new.
Guillén will be the second person in his family — after his older sister — to attend college when he starts at Fresno State in the fall. He wants to become a pharmacist, inspired to go into medicine by his parents’ experience with doctors.
“With my parents, they’re often scared to go, because they think they won’t get the right treatment because they (the doctors) won’t be able to understand them,” he said.
Guillén wants to help Spanish-speaking patients like his parents by eliminating miscommunication issues. Plus, he said his Spanish skills make him competitive in the medical field. Having proof that he’s bilingual even helped land him an interview for a part-time job at a pizza and games restaurant.
50,000 Number of students statewide who graduated with seals of biliteracy in the first three years
The seals are not only benefiting students in the Valley’s larger, urban school districts. At Avenal High School in Kings County, 29 students out of last year’s graduating class of 114 received seals of biliteracy.
Reef-Sunset Unified School District Superintendent David East said about 90 percent of the district’s students enter kindergarten as English learners, most of them native Spanish speakers. The overall English learner rate is 55 percent — the highest in Kings County, and one of the highest in the state. When the seal of biliteracy started being offered in 2012, he made sure counselors knew to help students apply.
“For us to be producing students that have that seal of biliteracy not only means that they’ve learned English sufficiently, but they haven’t lost their first language,” he said. “I know the value of the bilingual seal in terms of employability.”