Students earn high school credit, Seal of Biliteracy for rare native languages

EVERETT, Wash. — The Everett School District tested more than 357 students during the 2016-2017 school year in a foreign language not offered in high school. The exams through the foreign language program gave  students the chance to earn a ‘Seal of Biliteracy’ and foreign language credits upon graduating.

Students have tested in rare languages like Wolof, Icelandic to more common ones like Russian and Farsi.

Two years of foreign language are required to graduate from public high schools in Washington state.

Everett High School junior Jose Ruiz, who speaks fluent Spanish, is earning credit for his native language without setting foot in a foreign language classroom.

“Our rule in our family is talk Spanish only at home,” said Ruiz.

Sophomore Erphalyn Stephen, whose native language is Chuukese (from the Chuuck Islands of Micronesia) earned her foreign language credit by taking the personalized exam created especially for her.

“It provides access in a different way that honors their personal cultures, their past, their families,” said Lance Balla, principal at Everett High School.

Providing multiple access points is part of the district’s strategic plan for a 100% graduation rate.

“How awesome for a student who immigrates to this country and is destined for college and to have this opportunity to get a Seal of Biliteracy and get the high school credit,” said Catherine Matthews, who is with the district office.

The Seal of Biliteracy is an award given by a school, district, or state in recognition of students who have studied and attained proficiency in two or more languages by high school graduation.

Matthews says the Everett School District is one of the most diverse in the state, with students speaking more than 70 languages.

“I often have to look up the language,” said Matthews, laughing.

She says many of these multilingual students come from lower-income families and tests can be expensive -- upwards of $300 for the district to create exams for less common languages like Wolof or Icelandic.

Matthews says, however, the district recognized the student’s skill set as valuable and they decided to focus on making the exams affordable, no matter what language the students test in.

“We provide the exam for any student who wants to take it for $10,” said Matthews.

Just $10 can mean hundreds in savings by earning credit, something Ruiz, who is fluent is Spanish, plans to take full advantage of after graduating and returning to his home state of California and enrolling in a pre-med program.

“It gives me a great benefit, the majority of the population is Spanish speakers and if I have that tool of English and Spanish it will give me more opportunity in the state,” said Ruiz.

Earning that foreign language credit is offered twice a year through proctored exams. Students notify the district of the language they want to test in, then the district contracts with a vendor to create the special exam for each language. The exams are offered during school hours and test in reading, writing, speaking and listening.

Stephen, who moved to the United States from the Chuuck Islands of Micronesia, is also fluent in Japanese and English.

“Because my country is less developed, I feel like if I make a difference and go to college, I feel like I can support my country and make our people known,” said Stephen.

She also plans to go into medicine, study nursing and use her language skills to help other Chuukese when they’re most in need.

“When they go to the hospital, they don’t know English because it’s not their first language, so I would like to be able to be there and translate everything for them,” said Stephen.

Opening the doors of possibility is what the district says school is really all about, letting students realize their individual values and give them the opportunity to succeed far beyond high school.

Washington is one of 29 states offering the Seal of Biliteracy award. A handful of districts in Western Washington offer the seal to students who speak a native language not taught in high school.