Bilingual Michigan high schoolers could get diploma endorsement

By JINGJING NIE
Capital News Service

Lansing — A group of people are trying to establish a prize program for Michigan high school graduates who are proficient in two or more languages.

The program is called the Seal of Biliteracy. It is a diploma seal awarded by a school, school district or county office of education to recognize students who demonstrate a high level of proficiency in one or more languages in addition to English.

Around the country, 27 states have adopted the program.

“This is the highest award for recognizing the knowledge of foreign language for students,” said Marzanna Owinski, a language coordinator for the Polish Mission of the Orchard Lake Schools. The mission preserves and promotes Polish culture in America.

Owinski pitched the idea of establishment of Seal of Biliteracy to the Michigan Department of Education in September 2016.

She is now working with the Department of Education in a multi-language task force that will decide the requirements and standards for the program.

“We’re hoping to finish it this year,” she said.

“It is going to be available for students graduating as early as June 2018,” said Irma Torres, a world language consultant at Oakland Schools, who is also working with the task force.

“I’m very happy to have this in place for students who are learning another language and can achieve a certain required level of proficiency,” Torres said.

“I’m happy that the school recognizes English learners who have a second language already and I’m happy that it may also bring forward other students who are not taking a second language but can demonstrate bilingualism,” she said.

About 10 percent of high school graduates from California have received the Seal of Biliteracy on their diploma, Owinski said.

Each state develops its own criteria and guidelines. Michigan would have its unique standard as well, Torres said.

Exams for the program usually cover speaking, reading, writing and listening.

Owinski said, “Seal of Biliteracy is for all languages, which is a beauty of the work.”

Generally only a few world languages like Spanish, French, Chinese, Japanese and German are taught in schools. This program gives a chance to students who know other languages to be recognized for their language ability, Owinski said.

“We have to pay attention more to languages,” said Owinski.

Owinski said Michigan imports and exports products from and to many countries. Bilingualism can open perspectives and also helps in employment.

According to a study, “Employer Preferences: Do Bilingual Applicants and Employees Experience an Advantage?” 66 percent of employers prefer bilingual candidates.

In Michigan, some districts have already implemented a local program.

In 2014, the Dearborn School District established its own Seal of Biliteracy. Detroit Public Schools and Utica Community Schools, two of the biggest  districts, also offer programs in partnership with Welcoming Michigan, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that supports diversity in communities.

Utica Community Schools established the Seal of Global Language in 2016. Almost 150 students graduated with a seal the first year and 174 students graduated with a seal this year.

“Utica Community Schools expects that our students attain a high level of global language proficiency. We also celebrate and honor the diversity of our students and know that these experiences are preparing them for success in a global economy,” Superintendent Christine Johns said in a statement.

The idea is also supported by organizations like the Michigan World Language Association. Public affairs liaison Julie Foss said in an email that her organization enthusiastically supports the Michigan Seal of Biliteracy and is  working with the Department of Education on the initiative.

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