Seal of Biliteracy awarded to 78 Lynn Public Schools students

Lynn, Ma. 5-30-19. Serena Normil, Kimberly Avelar, and Adriana Ruiz received the seal of biliteracy. (Owen O'Rourke)

LYNN — Lynn Classical High School senior Kimberly Avelar grew up speaking both English and Spanish at home.

Avelar, 18, was born in the United States, but her family is from El Salvador. She considers both her first languages.

“I think you get the best of both worlds because, obviously, when you’re raised here, you learn to speak English, but also being connected to my heritage and my background with speaking Spanish at home with my family,” Avelar said.

Avelar not only graduated from Lynn Classical last Friday, she was also one of 78 Lynn seniors to be awarded the seal of biliteracy. Students who earned the seal wore silver cords with their graduation gowns to denote the achievement.

Lynn Public Schools rolled out the seal of biliteracy this year, which students who demonstrate a high level of bilingualism could earn on their high school diplomas and transcripts.

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

The seal is expected to look attractive to prospective employers and colleges, something Avelar felt would be the case for her. Being bilingual puts someone at an advantage, she said.

“It isn’t the fact that it’s Spanish — just the fact that you know any other language in general just to help other people and to understand, it makes it easier that way,” said Avelar, who is attending the College of the Holy Cross to study economics and mathematics.

Of the 78 students who were awarded the seal this year in Lynn Public Schools,34 were from Lynn Classical, 31 from Lynn English and 13 from Lynn Tech. Five students earned the seal of distinction, which is a more advanced level, according to Rania Caldwell, director of the school district’s English Learner Education department.  

Thirteen students are English Language Learners (ELLs) and 52 are former ELLs. All of the students were registered as speaking a language other than English at home, but all students are eligible to pursue the seal, Caldwell said.

“It’s been so rewarding for us to see students and how much pride they have in showing us what they’re capable of doing in another language, a second language,” said Caldwell. “For me, there definitely is a sense of pride and acknowledgement that we value the assets they’re coming with various languages.”

Lynn Public Schools awarded seals in seven partner languages, mostly in Spanish, but also in Haitian Creole, French, Bengali, Georgian, Swahili and Turkish, according to Caldwell.

Superintendent Dr. Patrick Tutwiler said the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) informed administrative officials that Lynn was the only school district in the state to take on the portfolios for lower incidence languages and “that they appreciated our hard work in acknowledging those students.”

Caldwell said students who speak lower incidence languages may feel valued for having the opportunity to earn the seal of biliteracy because they don’t get a lot of opportunity to show how much they knew before arriving in the United States.

One of those students acknowledged for earning the seal in a lower incidence language was Serena Normil, a 17-year-old senior who graduated from Lynn Classical last week.

Normil came to the United States from Haiti when she was 16 years old. She didn’t speak English when she arrived, but said it wasn’t difficult to learn the language. She speaks three languages — Haitian Creole is her first, followed by French and English.

Normil, who plans on attending the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, tested in Haitian Creole. Her experience was different from some other students because she was only tested in writing and speaking, with the latter conducted as a phone interview.

“I get to be recognized,” Normil said. “I don’t think a lot of people know that I speak Haitian Creole and none of the people in the schools speak that language, so I guess putting that on my diploma would be helpful.”

Normil said being multilingual will help her get better jobs. In addition, speaking multiple languages allows her to communicate with people around the world and can allow her to help people who speak the same language if they get into trouble, by translating their words into English.

For Adriana Ruiz, 17, who graduated from Lynn Classical, the seal means opportunity. She’s from Colombia originally and Spanish is her native language. It took her about two years to become fluent in English, crediting the ESL teachers in Lynn Public Schools.

“It’s something that certifies that you are bilingual and will help you try to get a job. It’s an accomplishment,” said Ruiz, who is attending North Shore Community College next year to study business administration.

To earn the seal, students have to demonstrate proficiency in both English and a second language. Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) scores are used to determine English proficiency, meaning students have to meet graduation requirements for English Language Arts.

For the world languages, an additional assessment in the partner languages tests a student’s proficiency in reading, writing, listening and speaking. But since the seal is being offered for the first year in the state, DESE has partnered with a number of language assessment agencies to offer the assessment as a phone interview or portfolio, rather than just a test.

The seal was offered to seniors this year and about 30 percent of the kids tested met the criteria to get the seal. Students were tested in 12 languages. But the 78 awarded seals exceeded Caldwell’s expectations, who only expected 30 students to achieve the distinction.

Next year, she said the district will offer the world languages assessment to juniors in the fall, which would allow results to be available in time for college admissions, which wasn’t the case this year, Caldwell said.

A night of recognition will be Thursday, June 13 at 5 p.m. before a regularly scheduled School Committee meeting, where the seal will be awarded to the students.

“It’s been a highlight of our year,” said Caldwell. “(It’s) highlighted the assets our kids are bringing into the school district.”

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