ITHACA, N.Y.—Graduating high school seniors lined up, smiled and posed with their diplomas on Monday at Ithaca’s Stewart Park to the joyous sound of applause as they were congratulated for receiving the New York State Seal of Biliteracy.

The seal is a unique distinction for graduating seniors in New York State. It requires a year of independent study in addition to their regular curriculum. Students journal, research, read, speak, and write, in English and the language which they’re pursuing proficiency in, and ultimately, give a formal presentation before a panel of judges to earn the seal, or “seal the deal,” so to speak.

Students don’t necessarily need to have studied a language in the City’s School System to pursue the seal. In fact, Emily Ufford, the teacher that pushed for the introduction of the Seal of Biliteracy program to the school district, emphasized the importance of the program for students whose families speak different languages at home. Ufford said that connecting students with their heritage languages was the original inspiration for her to get the program going locally.

Of the Ithaca City School District’s (ICSD) graduating seniors, 30 received the seal, conferring the state’s highest official distinction for proficiency in a second language. The seal was earned by 2 students attending Lehman Alternative Community School, and 28 from Ithaca High School. The seal of biliteracy was given to students proficient in languages ranging from Bulgarian, to Spanish, Russian, French, Hebrew, Chinese, as well as among others.

The final presentations students worked on had titles like: A Comparison of Bullying in Russian, French, and U.S. Schools; the Urban Rural Gap in U.S. and Spain; Sustainable Architecture in the U.S., France, and Senegal; Access to Music Education in the U.S. and Israel; or Similarities and Differences in American and German Genetic Engineering.

One student, Daniela Rivas, shared that for her final project compared the childhoods experienced at-large in the U.S. and El Salvador, where her family is from. She relied on help from her Mom while doing research, and said that project made her aware of the prevalence of child labor in El Salvador. While the year of independent study for the seal made Rivas become more familiar with the Spanish language, she said that her final project constituted the “biggest takeaway” of her experience earning the Seal of Biliteracy.

Shaqued Menda, a student whose Seal of Biliteracy was in Hebrew, said that she has remained verbally fluent in Hebrew since moving from Israel to the U.S. in early childhood, but she saw herself losing the ability to read and write in the language as she’s grown up.

“I lost my ability to read and write in Hebrew because growing up here I worked so hard to learn English […] I was motivated to be able to text my grandparents again. It’s kind of difficult to call them whenever I want to because of the time difference,” said Menda, excited to confirm that she achieved her goal of being able to keep in touch with distant relatives.

Sofia Trigueros-Ufford — daughter of Emily Ufford — earned a seal of biliteracy in Spanish, and shared that it allowed her to get even closer with her dad. “It definitely made me able to connect to my Dad more. I feel like the mother’s language is the one that children speak most at home, so it was a lot of English at home. My dad has always spoken Spanish to me, but I used to always respond in English.” Her studying to pursue the seal shifted the language spoken at home to Spanish, which her mom is also fluent in. 

Nomi Falk, a student who is the first in the school district to have ever earned the seal of biliteracy in three languages — Hebrew, Spanish, and French — looked at the program as a great opportunity for students to flex their linguistic muscles. 

“I think what’s cool about the seal is that it isn’t just a language learning opportunity, so much as a preening opportunity,” said Falk, adding, “It was a good opportunity to show off what we can all do.”

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn