Nine students at Monroe High School received the Seal of Literacy this year.
Nine students at Monroe High School received the Seal of Literacy this year.

Jesus “Chuy” Garcia-Ayala never saw being bilingual as an advantage until his senior year at Monroe High School.

This spring he was able to prove his proficiency in reading, writing and speaking Spanish through testing. He had fallen behind but was able to make up credits, which put him back on track to graduate, and provided him more time to focus on soccer and help out at his family’s business, on top of schoolwork. 

“It took a lot of weight off my shoulders,” Garcia-Ayala said.

Assistant principal Jeannette Siemers said it also gave him the chance to be a senior — to be a kid.

She headed the push to make two new opportunities available to students who know a second language in the Monroe School District this year. 

Siemers and Monroe High School’s previous principal John Lombardi developed policy and procedure for World Language competency testing, which the Monroe School Board adopted in February. The board then adopted a resolution in May for students who achieved the Washington State Seal of Biliteracy award.

Garcia-Ayala and three more students were able to walk with their classmates at Saturday’s ceremony, because they had the chance to test for the additional World Language credits, Siemers said. The school’s graduate rate would have been 1 percent lower this year, if they hadn’t finished on time, she said.

Up until February, the only way students could earn the seal of biliteracy was by getting a 3 or higher on their AP World Language exam, Siemers said. Nine students received the award.

“Our students are all different, and they have very different needs, and we are celebrating those needs by celebrating bilingualism with the Seal of Biliteracy award,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal in a 2017 video statement.

Thousands of students have already earned the award, he said. Roughly 60 school districts are participating in the program that was implemented in 2014, and first offered to students in 2015.

Reykdal said in Washington Spanish, French, Russian, Mandarin Chinese and Japanese are the top languages for which students are being recognized. Dozens of others are also tested for, he said.

Siemers said all of the students who tested in the school district this year spoke Spanish. Monroe is a bilingual community, she said.

Reykdal plans to create a system within the next six years that outpaces any other in the nation. He said the idea would be to go beyond scratching the surface of language in schools, and to develop lessons for younger grades, as early as kindergarten.

“Start early, stay long — that’s the key to proficiency in a second language,” he said.

Reykdal said putting an emphasis on learning other languages would help make students world citizens. They will be better prepared to participate in a global economy and interact with other cultures, as well as succeed in college and their careers, he said.

Students who are proficient in a second language have skills that “represent a tremendous potential resource to the state,” according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. California was the first state to adopt a program in 2011, and other states followed.

“In addition to career advantages, studies also show numerous cognitive benefits for students learning more than one language, including enhanced working memory, attention, flexibility and creative thinking,” according to OSPI.

Siemers said her students joined the ranks of an elite group this year. About 241,000 Washington seniors have graduated since 2015, and only 4,000 received the seal of biliteracy. For many, the experience also transformed the way they seem themselves.

Senior Jessica Cipriano cried when Siemers told her she had earned the seal of biliteracy this spring. Last fall she became a mother, and balanced that with her schoolwork and staying on track to graduate. Only a few years had passed since she first started learning English.

Siemers said Cipriano kept asking her if she had passed; she was very nervous about the results. She didn’t think she did very well, she said. Cipriano told Siemers she was even more proud of herself when she found out how few students have achieved the accolade.

Siemers said she was grateful to have been able to walk beside her during that part of her life. She is finishing up her second year as an administrator at the high school. She said she has always wanted to act as an advocate for her students, and make sure they have the support they need.

In this case, their success was largely because of who they are, Siemers said. Their heritage and culture and roots set them apart, she said.

Siemers said hopefully more students will be able to test next year. She expects the program will continue to grow throughout the school district.