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Lynn Public Schools will award seals for biliterate students

LYNN — Lynn Public Schools is rolling out a seal of biliteracy this year, which students who demonstrate a high level of bilingualism can earn on their high school diplomas and transcripts. The seal is expected to look attractive to prospective employers and colleges.

The seal of biliteracy, a component of the Language Opportunity for Our Kids (LOOK) Act which was passed into law in 2017, is available this year for the first time in Massachusetts. A pilot program for the seal was offered last year in some districts, including Salem, but the criteria was different.

The LOOK act is intended to provide more options for parents of English Language Learner (ELL) students, as well as increased accountability for schools and districts in meeting the needs of those students.

Although the seal is part of legislation targeting ELL education, it’s available to all students, according to Rania Caldwell, director of the Lynn Public Schools English Learner Education department.

School officials say offering the seal is meant to reflect the large bilingual student community in Lynn and encourage more students to pursue bilingualism.

“In Lynn, (Superintendent Dr. Patrick) Tutwiler feels it’s very powerful to acknowledge the diverse language backgrounds we have in our district,” Caldwell said. “This is an opportunity for kids in our district to showcase that … The goal is to encourage students to study world languages, become biliterate, value diversity and honor different cultures.”

According to statistics from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, for the 2018-19 school year, enrollment shows a majority-nonwhite student body, with 62 percent Hispanic students, 16 percent white, 12 percent black, and 9 percent Asian, or an 83 percent nonwhite population.

For the 2017-18 school year, more than 52 percent of students in Lynn Public Schools had a first language that was not English, compared to the state average of 20.9 percent, according to DESE.

More than 21 percent of the student population in 2017-18 was considered an English Language Learner (ELL), compared to the state average of 10.2 percent, according to DESE.

Students can earn the seal in multiple pathways. Native English speakers can go through the world languages program to learn a second language. ELL students who are literate in another language can learn English as a second language. Heritage speakers of a native language can maintain both languages, their native language and English, through school, according to Caldwell.

Despite a wealth of students who could pursue the seal, standards to be awarded one on their diplomas and transcript are stringent. In order to earn the Massachusetts seal of biliteracy, students must demonstrate proficiency in English and a partner language, such as Spanish. The criteria for both ELL and non-ELL students is the same, according to Caldwell.

Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) scores are used to demonstrate English proficiency, meaning students have to meet graduation requirements for English Language Arts (ELA). For the world languages, an additional assessment in the partner language tests a student’s proficiency in reading, writing, listening and speaking, according to Caldwell.

The assessment is being offered for the first time in the district’s high schools and there will be no charge in the initial year. Caldwell said students have to score an intermediate high on each of the four components of the world languages assessment, which will be offered this month and likely again in the spring.

“The criteria for students to earn the seal in the world languages component is a very high bar,” Caldwell said. “It’s a challenging assessment, but it will demonstrate a high level of literacy and bilingualism in that language.

“Once that’s seen by universities and colleges in the next couple of years, it will be seen as a valuable achievement for students. (We’re) trying to get as many students as possible to earn it so employers can start to see the level it has.”

To try to make the seal appear more attractive and build up its value, Caldwell said DESE representatives have been talking with employers and colleges across the state.  

Because the world languages assessment is new, Caldwell said it’s unclear how many students would pass and achieve the seal. School officials expect to know more after the first assessment is given at the end of this month.

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