California celebrates multilingual students

Mae Bolano smiles as her daughter, Yvanne Bolano, takes a selfie with her brother Cameron Bolano, right, after Cameron was recognized at the Seal of Biliteracy ceremony with his classmates from Center High School and other Sacramento County schools on Monday, April 20, 2015 at Rosemont High School
Mae Bolano smiles as her daughter, Yvanne Bolano, takes a selfie with her brother Cameron Bolano, right, after Cameron was recognized at the Seal of Biliteracy ceremony with his classmates from Center High School and other Sacramento County schools on Monday, April 20, 2015 at Rosemont High School

Speaking Spanish doesn’t make high school senior Karla Garza Plascencia feel different.

It doesn’t make her feel like an outsider in a school where English dominates, or like a foreigner in a state where – just 16 years ago – more than 60 percent of voters supported a measure that gutted the state’s bilingual education programs.

It gives her a sense of community, said Plascencia, who earned top scores on her Advanced Placement English and Spanish exams. It makes her feel more confident about her future.

Plascencia, 17, of Foothill High School was among hundreds of students who received certificates Monday night acknowledging their achievement of the State Seal of Biliteracy, a state program that recognizes high school seniors who have achieved a “high level of proficiency in speaking, reading, and writing one or more languages in addition to English,” according to the California Department of Education.

That designation means passing vigorous exams in English and at least one other language that test students’ reading, writing and speaking skills. To take the test in the first place, students said, they have to be specially selected by administrators and maintain a certain grade-point average – a minimum of a 2.0 in English language arts and a 3.0 in any foreign language classes.

Monday night marked the third year these awards were given, with more qualified students than ever before. This year, about 860 students qualified for the seal, said Tim Herrera, spokesman for the Sacramento County Office of Education. That’s up more than 200 from last year, when 620 qualified, and nearly three times the number who were granted a seal in the program’s first year.

It’s a near-about-face for California, where, in 1998, voters approved Proposition 227, an English-focused education initiative that eliminated most bilingual education programs and replaced them with English-only courses for students who spoke little or no English.

California’s ethnic populations have since ballooned. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Latino children make up the majority of California’s under-18 population, according to data from 2010, which suggest that the state’s total Latino population will surpass 50 percent by 2020.

“It’s a huge achievement for our students,” Sacramento County Deputy Superintendent Sue Stickel said of the number of multilingual students honored Monday. “This is an enormous step forward.”

Not only do students need bilingual skills to succeed in an increasingly multilingual country, she said, but the celebration around these successes shows that California has come to see the value of citizens who speak multiple languages.

For Alejandro Gutierrez, the head counselor at Foothill High School, it’s about time.

Gutierrez emigrated from Mexico when he was a child. He learned English as a second language and still speaks with a slight accent. In his more than 30-year tenure in education, Gutierrez said, he has seen students struggle in English-only environments or when there aren’t faculty members who can serve as role models for what an immigrant or a bilingual person can achieve.

“Bilingualism is not going away,” Gutierrez said. “We can no longer continue to accept our children learning English as the only language. Programs like this strengthen our schools, our students and California.”

Among the students who earned the seal, the vast majority chose Spanish as their second language.

Chris Wright, 17, a senior at Rio Linda High School, said he selected Spanish because of its prevalence in his community. When he and his family went on a recent trip to Mexico with their church, he acted as translator.

Besides Spanish, students also earned this year’s Seal of Biliteracy award for their proficiency in 13 other languages: Arabic, Armenian, Farsi, French, German, Hindi, Hmong, Mandarin, Punjabi, Russian, Tagalog, Ukrainian and Vietnamese. Several students earned seals in multiple languages, officials said.

The students consisted of those whose first language was English and those who grew up speaking a different language at home.

Ryan Smith, executive director of the Oakland-based research group Education Trust-West, said more needs to be done in support of English learners. But, he said, he was gratified to hear about a ceremony recognizing bilingual students.

“I’m proud to see that we are celebrating the accomplishments of biliteracy in the state,” Smith said. “I think it shows a pivot from what happened a decade ago when we passed Proposition 227, and it reveals prospects for progress for the state regarding bilingual programs.”

As the ceremony wound down, Gutierrez held court in Rosemont High School’s courtyard, doling out advice to students on what to expect in their first year of college: Don’t worry too much about dating; focus on school, not work; if you need help, ask for it.

Plascencia stood among half a dozen other students and nodded. They held tight to the certificates that acknowledged their accomplishment. But an onlooker wouldn’t need to see the paper in their hands to know what these kids can do: They were speaking in Spanish, switching back to English with ease, sometimes even in mid-sentence.

“It’s better to speak more than one language – you get into better schools, you get paid better,” said Guadalupe Castro Gutierrez, 17, who will be heading to American River College in the fall. “But you also get to speak more than one language with your friends and in school. It’s like we have our own community because we have our own language.”

Staff writer Loretta Kalb contributed to this report. Call The Bee’s Marissa Lang at (916) 321-1038. Follow her on Twitter at @Marissa_Jae.

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