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Seal of Biliteracy Gains Ground in Central New York

On the morning of September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, devastating the island and plunging all of its 3.4 million residents into a desperate humanitarian crisis. In Central New York, a Puerto Rican teen-ager was also struggling. Ian Torres and his family had left their country shortly before the hurricane hit. Ian was having a hard time at Liverpool High School, struggling with the English language and feeling anxious to drop out. He wanted to go back home, to help his extended family and friends. “I felt like I had abandoned them,” he said.
An English teacher, Patrick Gilchriest, stepped in and encouraged Ian to practice his English so he could master the language, express himself and gain confidence among his peers. He pushed Ian to apply to a prestigious aviation college in Florida, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, so he could pursue a lifelong dream of becoming a pilot. Another Liverpool teacher, Irma Sandoval, encouraged Ian to pursue a separate challenge: the New York State Seal of Biliteracy, a raised symbol on Ian’s high school diploma that would affirm his reading, writing and speaking proficiency in two languages.
In the end, Ian did apply to Embry-Riddle — and was accepted. Later, on May 22, Ian was one of 86 students in Central New York to successfully earn the Seal of Biliteracy after preparing an extensive project and giving an oral presentation in front of a panel of judges at the Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES in Liverpool. Combined, students from six Syracuse-area districts showcased 13 languages and cultures from across the world that day.
Ian’s story demonstrates the confidence and empowerment that comes with learning another language, what he likes to refer to as a “super power.”
But his was only one story.
There was also Faraan Hamad, a senior from Liverpool who speaks three languages: Urdu, Spanish and English. Hamad was so proficient in all three languages, the panelists were uncertain which one was his native tongue. “It kind of gets overlooked how hard it is to assimilate in a new country,” said Hamad, who moved to the United States from Pakistan at the age 3. The seal, he added, is a true testament to the difficulty of learning a new language and culture. Next year, he’ll study chemical engineering at the University of Rochester.
There was Lauren Lundrigen, a senior from Marcellus who demonstrated her mastery of French after studying the language since eighth grade. In March, Lundrigen traveled with a not-for-profit group of medical doctors who performed 111 surgical procedures for impoverished residents of Haiti, who speak French and Creole. For Lundrigen, learning a second language is vital to her dream of becoming a doctor, a pursuit she’ll launch at Colgate University next year.
There was Aruasy Barrios, a senior from Solvay whose three languages include Spanish, English and American Sign Language, or ASL. Barrios came from Cuba at age 4 with just her mother. She is hard of hearing, so she learned ASL at Solvay High School, which houses the Deaf & Hard of Hearing Program through OCM BOCES. Without the Seal, who would know she was proficient in three distinct languages? “It’s something to be proud of,” she said. Next year, she will be studying art education at SUNY Potsdam.

In New York State, the Seal of Biliteracy is relatively new, but it is quickly gaining attention. The Board of Regents adopted it in April of 2016 because it has major benefits, including:
  • Identifying high school graduates with language and biliteracy skills for employers;
  • Providing universities with additional information about applicants;
  • Preparing students with 21st century skills;
  • Recognizing the value of world and native language instruction in schools; and
  • Affirming the value of diversity in a multilingual society.
In the Central New York region, momentum for the Seal of Biliteracy has exploded. Spearheading the effort is the Mid-State Regional Bilingual Education Resource Network, or RBERN, which piloted a consortium last year in partnership with the Jefferson-Lewis-Hamilton-Herkimer-Oneida BOCES and the districts of Solvay, Belleville-Henderson, Carthage, Copenhagen, Indian River, Lowville and Watertown. Last year, six students from Solvay in that consortium earned the Seal of Biliteracy. year, the consortium expanded to include 12 Central New York districts under the umbrella of OCM BOCES and Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES. That expansion culminated at the May 22 evaluations, when all 86 students from Baldwinsville, Liverpool, Marcellus, North Syracuse, Solvay and Auburn earned the Seal of Biliteracy — a nine-fold increase in the region from the year before.
“What a wonderful New York State Seal of Biliteracy event we experienced together today!” said organizer Maria Fenton, World Language Resource Specialist for Mid-State RBERN. “This event showcased immense dedication to the students we serve, to our profession and to World Languages.”
Liverpool High School brought the most students to the presentation event, 49. Assistant Principal Harmony Booker-Balintfy said the district applied to participate this year and students worked exceptionally hard to achieve this distinguished designation. 
“It’s lovely to see our students engage in this rigorous process to demonstrate their proficiency in multiple languages and cultures,” she said. “We are very proud.”
For some students, learning a second language unlocked a passion they never expected. Natalie Ackerman of North Syracuse fell in love with Spanish art and a Spanish impressionist artist, Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, who inspired her presentation. This experience will serve her well in her chosen field of linguistics, the study of language, which she will pursue next year at Boston University.
Corynn Barnes, a senior from Auburn, said studying Spanish sparked a desire to travel overseas because of the unique, nature-inspired architecture of Antoni Gaudi, the focus of her project. “I didn’t know Antoni Gaudi until I did this,” she said, “and now I’d like to go to Barcelona.”
Elinor Grage, a senior from Baldwinsville, said French-speaking skills are her “sticky wicket,” so she deliberately challenged herself by pursuing the Seal of Biliteracy. An initial wave of nervousness in front of the panel of strangers passed quickly. “I sort of melted into it,” she said of her presentation, which examined the effects of culture on your emotions. During the question-and-answer period, she said, “I could really expand and blossom and show my opinion.”
Although most seniors at the May 22 event did not need the Seal of Biliteracy to bolster their college or career pursuits, many were thinking beyond the next four or five years.
“We give our students a huge benefit if they’re fluent in the English language and a world language,” said Marcellus administrator Deb Glisson, director of staff development and training. “You may go into a position and just by the fact that you’re biliterate, you’re going to excel in an interview and have a leg up on the job market.”
For others, the Seal of Biliteracy offered a public expression of pride in a native language and culture they continue to experience at home. Durga Khadka of Liverpool, for example, came to the United States from Nepal at age 9. She speaks Nepali at home and practices Hinduism, the focus of her presentation. Next year, she’ll study chemistry at Syracuse University.
“It was an opportunity for me to have respect for my own culture, to look back and be proud,” Khadka said. “Despite being here in America, this will always be part of me.”