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Seal of Biliteracy booms across Central New York


Students test for Seal of Biliteracy in record numbers

     Three years ago, six high school students from Solvay earned the New York State Seal of Biliteracy in a program piloted through the Mid-State Regional Bilingual Education Resource Network, or RBERN.
     This year, that number has exploded. In one day alone, 174 students from 11 Central New York school districts showcased their multiliteracy in 23 languages. Students presented their Seal of Biliteracy projects April 9 in buildings spread across the Onondaga Community College campus and at the Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES in Liverpool.
     Panels of teachers and evaluators assessed the presentations, posed questions, and determined if students qualified for a Seal of Biliteracy on their high school diploma, a symbol of high-level proficiency in speaking, reading, writing and listening in a language other than English. The honor also comes with a blue-and-gold medal from the New York State Education Department, which students can wear with their graduation robes.
     Three years ago, Olga Rudka, a nationality worker for the Solvay Union Free School District, assisted six students in Solvay who spoke Russian and Ukraine, the first group in Central New York to pursue the Seal of Biliteracy. This year, as she assessed presentations at OCC in numerous languages and corralled a never-ending stream of students on campus, she was astounded at today’s numbers.
    “It’s awesome,” she said. “I am just so glad our students have an opportunity to be proud of their heritage and increase their knowledge.”
     Students admitted being nervous about their presentations, with some shaking out their hands and taking long, deep breaths to help themselves relax. Others were smiling and chatting, visibly relieved to be done. Despite the pressure of doing a public presentation, especially in an additional language, they all agreed on one thing: It was worth it.
     “I thought this was a great ending to the six years of Spanish I’ve already taken,” said Camryn Chaffee, a senior from Liverpool, a district that came with a record 77 participants. “It was a good way to show what I’ve accomplished over those years.”
    Renee Cifaratta, a senior from North Syracuse, agreed.
    “It seemed to be the right thing to do,” she said of the Seal. “I’m interested in nursing, and thought this would help me better prepare for working with patients.”
     In addition to Central New York, other regions are also experiencing an explosion in Seal of Biliteracy participants. More than 40 districts and six BOCES made up the consortia from the mid-state region.

     For so many students, the Seal of Biliteracy means different things:

Donna Lin
Donna Lin
Donna Lin, 
North Syracuse CSD,
“Swimming Between Two Cultures”

Donna Lin, a senior from Cicero-North Syracuse High School, was born in the United States but spent much of her childhood going back and forth between the U.S. and China. Although she initially hoped to return to China on a more permanent basis, now she is not so sure. Her presentation was aptly titled, “Swimming Between Two Cultures.” It described some of the biggest differences between the two countries, including topics such as education, food and marriage. Lin speaks Mandarin and English, but she gave her presentation in a third language: Spanish.

Her biggest challenge? “I am using my English mind to learn Spanish,” she said, “so if my verb tenses are wrong in English, then they will be wrong in Spanish ... Chinese and Spanish are just way too different.”

Jason Holbrook,
Onondaga Central Schools,
"Diesel Cars in Germany"

After spending three weeks last summer in Germany, including time with a host family, Jason Holbrook of Onondaga described the experience as “awesome” and “eye-opening.” His love for the German language grew, but it also revealed to him how much more he had to learn. At the urging of his German teacher, Chris Solan, Holbrook not only pursued the Seal of Biliteracy, he gave his presentation on a very technical topic: diesel motors. He also included some background on a high-profile controversy at Volkswagen involving faulty emissions tests. That meant learning high-level, technical words that impressed his assessors.

“He did a great job,” said Olga Rudka, one of the panelists. “He really challenged himself.”
Jason Holbrook
Jason Holbrook

Casie Chalon
Cassie Chalon, pictured with her family and instructor 
Cassie Chalon,
Cato-Meridian CSD,
"Polish Dumplings"

As a child, Cassie Chalon used to sneak into the kitchen and swipe a taste of the authentic Polish dishes her mom cooked or baked on a regular basis. Chalon, a senior at Cato-Meridian, shared some of those recipes as she talked about growing up in Polish- and English-speaking household, with parents who came to the United States to find work and be closer to family. Chalon shared information about Polish dumplings, “red” soup (with beets), and a delectable pastry made with vanilla pudding that’s served cold with a sprinkling of powdered sugar. Chalon said pursuing a Seal of Biliteracy gave her the chance to take pride in her heritage.

“When I tell people I’m Polish and have the ability to speak Polish, the first thing they think of is pierogis,” she said, “so it’s nice to be able to give (everyone) a deeper look into the culture, and to prove to myself that I’m biliterate.”