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Program gives bilingual students the seal of approval

Daniel "Alex" Castro, 14, is an eighth-grader at Truman Middle School in southwest Albuquerque. He is applying for APS' bilingual seal program

Daniel “Alex” Castro, 14, is an eighth-grader at Truman Middle School in southwest Albuquerque. He is applying for APS’ bilingual seal program. (Shelby Perea/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For 14-year-old Daniel “Alex” Castro, bilingualism is more than just an academic feat. It’s a way of keeping his family’s story and culture alive.

“Spanish is a really big, important part of my family,” said Castro, an eighth-grader at Truman Middle School.

Castro’s parents emigrated from Mexico about 14 years ago, coming to the States in order to get specialized medical care needed for his birth.

The teen, whose first language was Spanish, said being bilingual is both an investment in his future and a way to connect to many of his family members who either primarily or explicitly speak Spanish.

“If you are going to learn about your culture, you should learn its primary language,” he said. “There are a lot of words, a lot of sayings, a lot of stories that do not translate.”

Castro has recently been accepted into Albuquerque Public Schools’ bilingual seal program, which until recently he wouldn’t have been eligible for.

SealAPS is widening the reach of its bilingual seal program, which was previously only available at the high-school level, to elementary and middle school students.

The seal is a way to distinguish students “who have studied and attained a high level of proficiency in English and another language,” according to APS’ Bilingual Seal Handbook.

“Every single job I’ve had is because I am bilingual,” said Madelyn Serna M├írmol, assistant superintendent of equity, instruction and support. “Since we do live in a bilingual state, I think it’s important to hold on to that.”

The goal of incorporating younger students into the seal program is to create a pathway of bilingualism and biliteracy from the kindergarten level until the students graduate high school.

“We have to implement recognition at an earlier age so they can foresee recognition at the high-school level,” said Jessica Villalobos, senior director of language and cultural equity. “It will be an incentive for them to get to that 12th-grade goal.”

Villalobos said high school students and program graduates will serve as mentors for the younger kids.

The program will be flexible to fit the resources and needs of each school, but there are minimum requirements each school will have to adhere to, explained Sandra Alvarado, instructional manager for language and cultural equity.

One of the minimum requirements for the elementary and middle school level is three hours of content instruction daily in Spanish. From there, students go through a portfolio process, including an oral presentation and written work. And then students will present to a panel of community and staff members.

Bilingual-program schools across APS are beginning to implement the seal requirements, integrating the expectations into the classroom.

Villalobos said schools have already been implementing the seal portfolio for the past few years without recognition. Now, the seal pathway will allow students to be applauded for their bilingualism and biliteracy achievements.

While the elementary and middle school efforts are mirroring APS’ high school program, one difference is the languages offered.

The seal for high-schoolers is available for multiple languages, including Spanish, Navajo and German. The elementary and middle school programs are only available in Spanish.

“In terms of programming, that’s the only language where we have enough certified staff,” Villalobos said.

May 2018 will usher in the first elementary and middle school students with the APS seal on their certificates of promotion. About 100 students, ranging from 5-year-olds to 13-year-olds, are expected to display the seal.

One of those students is anticipated to be Castro.

“The seal means everything to me,” he said. “It really is an honor and I know my parents will be proud.”