Waukesha students will become first in the state to earn the Wisconsin Seal of Biliteracy, an achievement award which recognizes high school seniors who demonstrate they are academically proficient in English and the partner of other languages.

In all, at least 53 students will receive the award since the Waukesha School District became the first district approved to offer the Wisconsin Seal of Biliteracy in 2016. Wisconsin became the 23rd state to join the list.

It's a recognition students deserve, but one they have missed for their academic prowess.

Seal of success

"The seal was created as a grassroots movement in California to acknowledge the scholarship of multi-lingual students," said Deirdre Garcia, director of multilingual and global education for Waukesha School District.

Garcia said students also have to demonstrate a sociocultural or global competency.

"The thing that makes the Seal of Biliteracy really unique is it really values the home language and community language funds of knowledge," she said.

It is possible for a student to earn the award without ever having taken a world language class. That's because the award is not based on seat time in classrooms.

Other than in language schools, there are different ways students are being exposed to second language learning or adding English to their developing home languages.

"The award is meant to include students who have pathways to biliteracy which were not necessarily dependent upon school experiences, Garcia said.

In the Waukesha School District, many students achieved the seal because they have had in-school academic experiences that led them towards mastery.

Measuring proficiency

In Waukesha, educators are using ACT to measure English proficiency or the access for English language learners assessment. For student's partner languages, Garcia explained there are different methods.

She said this year some students have taken a SAT test in a language other than English, an advanced placement test, or Assessment of Performance toward Proficiency in Languages.

There are 48 languages in Waukesha. A rubric was created for languages which don't have a typical assessment – such as Korean or Eskimo languages. In addition, there are American Sign Language users.

Garcia also hopes to include students who are literate in Braille, although she said the visually impaired community doesn't view it as a language.

Global approach

This year, the more than 50 students who have met the requirements for achievement are working on demonstrating their global competency, Garcia said.

In Waukesha, students are doing this in two ways. Students will write two different essays – one in English and another one in a partner language.

Essays will be evaluated – not for language or linguistics, but for the ability to recognize their own and others' perspectives. Students also have to choose from two different types of essays, one more narrative and the other with an academic and research element.

Garcia said students also have to conduct a service project to demonstrate they can communicate to a diverse audience and be able to take action to impact a problem or opportunity in the community.

Prized skill

Employers and universities want to see students who have demonstrated those abilities. The seal is accepted as a measure in 23 states and is displayed on their diplomas and transcripts.

"Data has shown communication skills is a prized possession even more than technical skills," Garcia said.

She added that another important element is the ability for students to work together as a team with people of diverse backgrounds.

"People want to hire graduates with the ability to not only cope, but thrive and add value to teams like that," she said.

The seal is meant to show the Waukesha School District is graduating students who have these skills.

One might think students in their senior year would not want to do more work. But Garcia has found nothing but can-do attitudes and excitement from students.

"Kids need a lot of choices and to be able to own what they are doing. When they do, they soar," Garcia said.

Embracing diversity 

Garcia said the award's name, the Seal of Biliteracy, is associated with bilingualism and the Latino population.

In Waukesha, the students that have learned their partner language in school have just as much enthusiasm as her Latino population, which learn their language at school, home and in the community, she said.

Garcia held parent information sessions both in English and Spanish. She was greeted with support and commitment of parents. In fact, a few parents commented how no has ever labeled their child a scholar before.

"They were not at all dissuaded by the word biliteracy, which in other communities can be a hot topic, she said.

Students have come up to her and expressed appreciation of their culture and languages no longer being invisible. Most of all the students feel valued, she said.

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