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228 students showcase their proficiency in multiple languages during ‘Seal of Biliteracy’ presentations at OCC


228 students showcase their multiliteracy skills for ‘Seal of Biliteracy’

April 25, 2023

By Jackie Wiegand
OCM BOCES Marketing Coordinator

“Chin” is one of 107 languages spoken in Myanmar, or Burma, one of Southeast Asia’s largest and most diverse countries.

Salomi Lawm, a senior at East Syracuse Minoa High School, spoke in Chin about her home country during a New York State “Seal of Biliteracy” presentation on April 21 at Onondaga Community College.

What is the New York State
Seal of Biliteracy?

The NYSSB recognizes high school graduates who have attained a high level of proficiency in English and one or more world languages.

The intent of the NYSSB is to:

  • Encourage
    the study of languages

  • Identify high school graduates with language and
    biliteracy skills for employers

  • Provide universities with additional information about applicants seeking admission and placement

  • Prepare students with
    21st-century skills

  • Recognize the value of language instruction

  • Affirm the value of diversity in a multilingual society.

To quality, successful candidates earn three points in English and three points in each world language from a points matrix, which includes course grades, national and state exams, transcripts, and culminating projects. The NYSSB takes the form of a Seal on the student's diploma and a medallion worn at graduation.

Source: The New York State Office Bilingual Education of Bilingual Education and World Languages

"Myanmar is rich in culture and traditions but not a lot of people know about it,” said Lawm, whose family moved to the United States in 2015 as part of a long journey to escape civil war and violence in Myanmar. “I just want to spread awareness about what’s going on there.”

From left to right are East Syracuse Minoa seniors
Arabella Alejo, Rachelle Asari, and Salomi Lawm.
Alejo will be attending the Physician Assistant program
at Le Moyne College; Asari is studying political science
at New York University; and Lawm is studying nursing
at Le Moyne College.

Lawm was among 228 students from 11 OCM BOCES component school districts who showcased their multiliteracy through formal presentations that included 22 world languages. Their hope was to qualify for the Seal of Biliteracy, an honor that represents high-level proficiency in speaking, reading, writing, and listening in English and one or more world languages. Students who qualify get to have the Seal affixed to their high school diplomas. They also receive a blue-and-gold medal from the New York State Education Department, which they can wear with their graduation robes in June.

On April 21, students presented their culminating projects before panels of bi-literate educators from the participating districts. For less common languages, evaluations were conducted through a collaboration with Lexikeet Language Services, which provides online interpreters. After each presentation, evaluators asked students questions to help assess their interpersonal — or conversational — communication skills.

The event at OCC was organized by the Mid-State Regional Bilingual Education Resource Network, or RBERN, which is housed at the Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES under the direction of Tanya Rosado-Barringer. It was set up with an advisory group that included Harmony Booker-Balintfy and Mónica Abrams from the Liverpool Central School District, Amie Dubos from the Tully Central School District, and Pamela Russell Stanos from the North Syracuse Central School District.

RBERN Resource Specialist and Teacher-Trainer Maria Fenton, who speaks five languages herself, said student participation in the Seal of Biliteracy has boomed. The most recent data from 2021-2022 shows the number of students participating in the Mid-State region growing from 31 in 2016-2017 to 483 in 2021-2022. The consortium of districts under Midstate RBERN is also unique, with districts gathering in one place to do the presentations and assessments. The OCM BOCES districts at OCC included Baldwinsville, Cazenovia, Chittenango, Cortland, East Syracuse Minoa, LaFayette, Liverpool, North Syracuse, Onondaga, Solvay and Tully.

On April 21, the presentations at OCC gave students a chance to support one another, bond with each other, and celebrate the wide diversity of languages and cultures that exist in Central New York. The North Syracuse Central School District, for example, brought 20 participants. Students clapped and cheered in a special preparation area known as “the fishbowl” — a circular room surrounded by windows — as each classmate returned from a presentation.

Cicero-North Syracuse High School senior Bhavi Patel talks to her
classmates about what to expect during their Seal of Biliteracy
presentations on April 21 at Onondaga Community College.
Patel gave presentations in French, Hindi, and Gujarati. After her
first presentation, she said, “I was able to answer all of their questions,
so I was proud of that.” Patel will be attending RIT in the fall to study
biochemistry and eventually medicine.

“We’re all very supportive of each other,” said Bhavi Patel, a senior from Cicero-North Syracuse High School. “We’ve been giving each other supportive comments all day and all week.”

Patel speaks four languages: Gujarati, Hindi, English, and French. She gave presentations in each language on religions in France and India. Christianity in France, for example, is similar to Hinduism in India because both have spring holidays to celebrate new life, a fresh start, and the victory of good over evil. 

Patel was also one of several students at OCC who said they spoke English at school but another language at home. Patel’s parents came from the state of Gujarat in India to find a better life in the United States. Her grandparents came, too, and live with them at home. They all speak Gujarati. Patel also picked up Hindi through Indian music and television. Her interest in French — and the Seal of Biliteracy — came at the urging of her junior high French teacher. 

Another student from East Syracuse Minoa, Arabella Alejo, said her family immigrated from Cuba in the late 1990s. Her presentation in Spanish focused on Cuban poet José Marti, a national hero in Cuba because of his role in the country’s liberation from Spain. The connection was special. Growing up, Alejo remembers her father reading Marti’s poetry, which focused on “compassion and human rights,” she said. She wasn’t nervous about the presentation, she added, because she speaks Spanish at home and routinely translates from English for her grandmother.

“It’s going to be like having a conversation with my parents,” Alejo said.

Cazenovia seniors Elijah Gebers and Corinne Albicker
prepare for their Seal of Biliteracy presentations on
April 21 at Onondaga Community College. The
Cazenovia district brought 17 participants in all.
Gebers will be studying opera in the fall at the
Eastman School of Music;  Albicker plans to attend
SUNY Geneseo to major in math education.
ESM senior Rachelle Asari gave her presentation in Spanish but also speaks Twi, the language of her family’s first home in Ghana, West Africa. Asari focused on African American history and influences in Latin American culture. She plans to attend New York University next year and eventually become a civil rights lawyer.

The value of learning a second language, or even multiple languages, was not lost on students pursuing the Seal.

Corinne Albicker, a senior at Cazenovia High School, thinks the program has given her a strong base for speaking and understanding Spanish, a skill that could come in handy as she pursues a teaching degree in math education next year at SUNY Geneseo.

“I feel like it’s valuable for me to at least have a basic understanding of students who aren’t totally versed in English,” she said. “That’s a huge advantage.”

Her classmate, senior Elija Gebers, agreed. He was getting ready for a presentation in French about the state of opera in French society, discussing how inclusive it is and growing in popularity. It was an obvious topic of interest — Gebers is studying opera next year at the prestigious Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. He said he was used to performing in front of people, especially as a vocalist, so he wasn’t overly nervous about his presentation.
“Looking back on it, this will be a good thing,” he said. “I’ll be glad I did it.”