Celebrating Bilingualism: Adopt the Volunteer Seal of Biliteracy Today

It’s a great thing to put on my resume, but the val­ue of it lies in the future gen­er­a­tions, for the kids that will receive it. Because those kids will have a val­i­da­tion that says your lan­guage mat­ters, your cul­ture mat­ters… and the val­ue sur­pass­es its medal or title. It’s the fact that there is hon­or for the stu­dent, and that their back­ground is an asset instead of a deficit.

Mari­na Yousef, junior at Trevec­ca Nazarene Uni­ver­si­ty in Nashville, tells the Ten­nessee Edu­ca­tion­al Equi­ty Coali­tion why her par­ents made the deci­sion to leave Egypt and move to the Unit­ed States when she was sev­en years old. “My par­ents were very well-off there, but they rec­og­nized that they had three girls, and the best [our] life could be there was very lim­it­ed.” And so her fam­i­ly made Ten­nessee their home, and her par­ents worked dili­gent­ly to sup­port the future mobil­i­ty of their daugh­ters.

Upon start­ing ele­men­tary school in Nashville, Mari­na strug­gled as a native Ara­bic speak­er. She recalls her fam­i­ly encour­aged her to stop speak­ing Ara­bic in their home. “I need­ed to adapt and take on the Eng­lish lan­guage. That meant suc­cess, and that meant affirm­ing my par­ents’ sac­ri­fice.” Mari­na says that this move­ment away from her lin­guis­tic roots was also affirmed by her school sys­tems’ teach­ers and admin­is­tra­tors.

But as she grew old­er, some­thing changed. “I start­ed to thirst for…who I am.” As she began to grap­ple with her Amer­i­can and her Egyp­tian cul­tur­al iden­ti­ties, her high school pro­vid­ed her the oppor­tu­ni­ty to receive a grad­u­a­tion award that cel­e­brat­ed her pro­fi­cien­cy in both Eng­lish and Ara­bic: the Vol­un­teer State Seal of Bilit­er­a­cy (VSSB). The VSSB col­lab­o­rates with dis­tricts across Ten­nessee to provide stu­dents with the Seal on their high school diplo­ma, sig­nal­ing 21st cen­tu­ry work­force skills and diverse lin­guis­tic and cul­tur­al appre­ci­a­tion.

The Vol­un­teer State Seal of Bilit­er­a­cy works col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly with schools and dis­tricts across Ten­nessee to provide pro­gram sup­port and mate­ri­als in order to offer the award to every eli­gi­ble student.In addi­tion to lever­ag­ing exist­ing part­ner­ships and resources to ensure imple­men­ta­tion statewide, the orga­ni­za­tion is work­ing with the Ten­nessee Lan­guage Cen­ter to devel­op non-Eng­lish lan­guage assess­ments for high schools. The­se tests  will deter­mine stu­dent pro­fi­cien­cy in lan­guages that are not cur­rent­ly offered through exist­ing test­ing pro­grams, such as Advanced Place­ment and Inter­na­tion­al Bac­calau­re­ate.

Why Should Schools Par­tic­i­pate in the Seal of Bilit­er­a­cy?

1. Labor Mar­ket ReturnsInvest­ing in the Seal in your school will equip grad­u­ates with demon­stra­ble lan­guage skills that will make them more com­pet­i­tive in the Ten­nessee labor mar­ket. Over the past two decades, Ten­nessee has seen a seis­mic demo­graph­ic shift in pop­u­la­tion, with migrant pop­u­la­tions, Eng­lish learn­ers, and non-Eng­lish lan­guage back­ground stu­dents increas­ing across com­mu­ni­ties and schools. Cou­pled with this growth, online job post­ings for bilin­gual work­ers near­ly tripled between 2010 and 2016, and post­ings dou­bled for can­di­dates who speak Span­ish.

A Seal of Bilit­er­a­cy makes Ten­nessee grad­u­ates more com­pet­i­tive in the work­force, both after high school but also once they’ve earned a post-sec­ondary degree. Job post­ings for bilin­gual can­di­dates can span from insur­ance car­ri­ers to cred­it inter­me­di­aries. The­se occu­pa­tions require some form of a post­sec­ondary cre­den­tial, and offer gain­ful salaries. When a Ten­nessean receives the Seal of Bilit­er­a­cy, they are bet­ter equipped to meet the state’s work­force needs and are pre­pared to tran­si­tion into gain­ful employ­ment upon high school or col­lege grad­u­a­tion.

2. Hon­or and Recog­ni­tion for Each Student’s Lin­guis­tic and Cul­tur­al Her­itage: The Seal of Bilit­er­a­cy also pro­vides schools and dis­tricts the oppor­tu­ni­ty to cel­e­brate the cul­tur­al and lin­guis­tic her­itage of their students.Tennessee’s stu­dents who speak a lan­guage oth­er than Eng­lish hail from many coun­tries. Near­ly 80 per­cent speak Span­ish; 6.8 per­cent speak Ara­bic, 1.2 per­cent speak Kur­dish or Soma­li, and 1.1 per­cent speak Viet­name­se. In addi­tion to the lin­guis­tic diver­si­ty amongst Tennessee’s stu­dents, 82 per­cent of non-Eng­lish back­ground stu­dents are native-born — sig­nal­ing a high­er lev­el of stu­dents pro­fi­cient in two lan­guages. When schools offer the Seal of Bilit­er­a­cy to their grad­u­ates, they sig­nal to their stu­dents, fac­ul­ty and com­mu­ni­ty that lin­guis­tic diver­si­ty is val­ued and cel­e­brat­ed. The work of the Vol­un­teer Seal State of Bilit­er­a­cy cel­e­brates the achieve­ments of native Eng­lish speak­ers as well, offer­ing them an oppor­tu­ni­ty to demon­strate pro­fi­cien­cy by pass­ing a lan­guage assess­ment such as AP or IB. For lan­guages that do not cur­rent­ly have an afford­able and acces­si­ble assess­ment (i.e. Kur­dish, Soma­li, and oth­ers), the award pro­gram is work­ing with Ten­nessee Lan­guage Cen­ter (TLC) to craft assess­ments that schools can use to assess pro­fi­cien­cy in the­se lan­guages. The Seal of Bilit­er­a­cy is designed to cel­e­brate and rec­og­nize any stu­dent, regard­less of back­ground, that can demon­strate pro­fi­cien­cy in two or more lan­guages, while also pro­vid­ing them with a rec­og­niz­able hon­or that is attrac­tive to employ­ers and post-sec­ondary insti­tu­tions alike. 

Rec­om­men­da­tions:  

  • Con­tact the Vol­un­teer State Seal of Bilit­er­a­cy (volstateseal@gmail.com) or vis­it www.volstateseal.org to learn more about the pro­gram, require­ments, expan­sion options, and exist­ing dis­trict “best prac­tices” for pro­vid­ing the Seal
  • Col­lab­o­rate with the VSSB and oth­er K-12 schools in your dis­trict to devel­op long-term plans that set up stu­dents for bilin­gual pro­fi­cien­cy in ear­lier grades 
  • Sur­vey local indus­tries and oth­er orga­ni­za­tions to learn about the util­i­ty and need for bilin­gual can­di­dates

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