Biliteracy program awards 37 North Attleborough students in first year

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Students in the Seal of Bilteracy program celebrate with senior Jocelyn Jackson, the first student to earn her seal. Thirty-three other students also passed the tests, of which three earned two. Courtesy photo

By Max Bowen-max.bowen@northstarreporter.com

A new program at North Attleborough High School has given students the opportunity to become fluent in several languages and add an important note to their academic careers.

The Seal of Biliteracy program, which was launched this school year, was started by Victoria Ekk, the former middle school principal and former English Language Learners director. Anne Marie McGrail is a Spanish teacher at the high school and helps run the program’s testing. She said that to be biliterate means that one can speak, listen, read, and write in a language, and students were tested on all of these. All told, the students tested in eight languages, including Turkish, Gujarati, Arabic, and Hindi.

These were languages that were new to me,” said McGrail. “Any language you can speak, you can test in.”

Senior Olivia Forbes celebrates passing her Seal of Bilteracy testing. Fifty-one students took part in the program. Courtesy photo

McGrail said that any student who passes will have the Seal of Bilteracy added to their diploma or transcript. Work is underway to create a system for colleges and universities to accept these when students apply. Fifty-one students took part in the program, of which 37 passed, three learning two languages and four earning the Seal of Distinction.

It’s really helpful in the future for employment purposes,” she said

Students testing for French and Spanish could take the classes offered at the school, and those working in other languages often learned at home. The testing lasted four to seven hours, and began with the reading and listening portions, which would determine what the speaking test would be. McGrail credited the hard work of the students, who took the tests after school, on the weekends, or during February vacation. She said that the community helped, with one parent offering to be a tutor, and a family from Turkey supplying materials to help the students.

We have a diverse population [in North Attleborough],” said McGrail. “This helped provide more opportunities to the students.”

Connecting through language

For some of the students, the program offered them a chance to connect more closely with their culture. Such was the case with Aditi Rathor, who earned the seal in Spanish and Hindi, which is her native language. Rathor learned Hindi at home with her family and said the lessons brought them closer together.

It helped connect me with my roots,” said Rathor.

Rathor said that Hindi is a phonetic language, which made it a challenge, particularly when it came to reading and writing it. One method that helped was discerning a pattern to the sounds, which helped to learn where they would be used. Rathor said that understanding Spanish when it’s spoken to her wasn’t too hard, but speaking it was more of a challenge. In all, Rathor said she gained a lot of confidence from the experience.

It makes me more confident to help others,” said Rathor. “I really want to become a doctor in the future. Patients won’t open up unless you gain their trust. If I have a patient that speaks Spanish or Hindi, that will help them open up [if I speak the language].”

Senior Caitlin Echeverri works on the speaking portion of the Seal of Bilteracy test. There were four sections to the tests—speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Courtesy photo

Mini Faltas is an English Language Learner and arrived in the U.S. in February 2019 unable to speak English. He earned the Seal of Biliteracy in Arabic and spoke it at home, and felt more than ready for it. Faltas said speaking Arabic was the hardest part, and hopes to learn Turkish next.

Trying and trying, that was my technique,” said Faltas.

Ebhan King is originally from Ireland and earned the Seal with Distinction on the Spanish exam. In an e-mail, King wrote that he took the class because of how it would help in future careers, and because of the school’s strong foreign language department. King said that speaking Spanish was the hardest part, and McGrail was a big help in improving these skills.

King said that immersing in Spanish culture was a big help. Watching shows on Netflix in Spanish, such as “Elite” or “La Casa de Papel,” and listening to Spanish-speaking artists helped him to better comprehend and pronounce the language.

One thing that I gained from this experience is a better work ethic,” wrote King. “The practice we put in for this exam and for the AP test has been strenuous, but has taught me that I need to put in the work in order to reap the benefits. I’ve definitely learned to work both smarter and harder from this all.”