Number of Denver students earning a ‘seal of biliteracy’ continues to skyrocket

Nearly twice as many Denver students are on track to graduate with a “seal of biliteracy” this year as last year. The seal signifies they are fluent in English and at least one other language.

Thus far, 893 high school seniors have earned a seal, and there is a possibility even more could do so by the end of the school year, according to district spokeswoman Alex Renteria. That’s an increase from the 490 students who earned a seal last year, and more than four times as many as earned a seal the first year it was possible in 2016.

The seals are a recognition that being bilingual is an asset. In a district where 37 percent of the 92,600 students are English language learners, district officials have said the seals are also a celebration of the skills students bring with them to the classroom. The seal of biliteracy was cited by a national group of Latino school administrators in naming Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg the 2018 Hispanic-Serving School District Superintendent of the Year.

But the seal has also been controversial. Because Colorado is a local control state, decisions about adopting seals of biliteracy rest in districts’ hands. Denver Public Schools was one of the first to offer it in Colorado, and Denver officials advocated for a state law passed last year that sets a path for other districts to do the same.

This week, the district celebrated students who earned the seal at a ceremony.

Theresa Nguyen is one of 27 students recognized for being fluent in English and two other languages. Nguyen, an 18-year-old senior at John F. Kennedy High School, is tri-literate in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese, her first language.

Growing up, Nguyen said she often acted as a translator for her parents. But when her mother was hospitalized three years ago, Nguyen said she wasn’t allowed to do so because medical translators must be at least 18 years old, and she was only 15. Instead, she said her mother had to have conversations about her medical care through a translator over the phone.

“That took away the empathy factor,” Nguyen said. It’s one reason she wants to eventually work in the surgery department at a hospital serving vulnerable patients. “Being able to communicate to patients in their native tongue, I think that’s what empathy really is.”

Nguyen will be the first in her family to attend college when she goes to the University of Colorado Denver this fall. She said she thinks having the seal of tri-literacy on her resume helped land her the scholarships that will make college possible for her.

To earn a seal from Denver Public Schools, students must either have a 3.0 grade point average in their high school English classes, pass a college-level English class, or earn a high enough score in English on an ACT, SAT, Advanced Placement, or International Baccalaureate test.

To show proficiency in a second or third language, students can either earn high enough scores on certain nationally recognized tests or, if no test is available for a particular language, submit a speaking and writing portfolio that demonstrates their literacy in that language.

In addition to the high school seniors who earned a seal this year, 253 juniors have already met the requirements to earn one when they graduate, Renteria said.

Students earned seals this year in 20 different languages. The top three were Spanish, French, and Vietnamese. The others included Arabic, Norwegian, and Swahili.