© 2023 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Waukesha Schools Offer 'Seal of Biliteracy' For Multicultural Learning

Rachel Morello
A map gracing the hallway in the School District of Waukesha office shows different parts of the world where students' families come from.

Wisconsin high school students will soon say goodbye to their teenage stomping grounds, and head off to college, the workforce, the military – all with diplomas in tow.  

A group of graduates from theSchool District of Waukesha will also leave with another badge of honor: the Seal of Biliteracy.  

Wisconsin is one of 25 states that awards the Seal of Biliteracy. Graduating high school seniors can earn the Seal -- if their district has a state-approved program -- when they have successfully studied and achieved proficiency in two or more languages, including English. 

Waukesha is one of just two communities in the state with a language program robust enough to grant this award. D. Garcia coordinates that program – she’s Waukesha’s Director of Multilingual and Global Education.

"The Seal is a public way to let the community, universities and employers know that what you have in front of you in a potential candidate, is a person who has demonstrated they have the sociocultural and multicultural skills to add to your organization," Garcia explains. 

To earn the Seal, students demonstrate linguistic proficiency through standardized tests. In Waukesha, students must also meet the district's standards for global education: investigating the world and recognizing perspectives through essays, as well as proving their ability to communicate with diverse audiences through service projects. 

"Regionally, I think we have considered multi-lingualism as somewhat of a deficit."

Garcia says she hopes more districts work toward teaching to the Seal, though it may mean trying new things within their established curriculums. 

"Multi-lingual education isn't a one-hour Spanish class, once a day, colors, numbers and songs," she says. "English as a second language is also a lesser-impact program. But a lot of districts have to use English as a second language because the either don't have the resources, or aren't willing to innovate to create what is a dual language setting."

"Regionally, I think we have considered multi-lingualism as somewhat of a deficit," she adds, "because we have that approach to language, we see a student's home language capital as not being a resource."

Waukesha has long been a leader in multi-cultural learning in Wisconsin.

The City of Waukesha itself is home to 48 different linguistic groups, primarily Spanish-speakers. The school district's 40-year-old dual language program engages fourteen percent of the student population from K4 through 10th grade.

Credit Rachel Morello
A dual language program has existed in the School District of Waukesha for 40 years.

Those kids learn 100 percent of their content in Spanish in K4, moving to 90 percent Spanish in first grade, and so on -- until they reach fourth grade, when instruction in core subjects like math, science, social studies and language arts is taught 50-50 between English and Spanish. 

"The new face of multi-lingualism in the United States are kids that are born right here in this community, and they are multi-lingual students from the time that they are born," Garcia explains.

State leaders are working to increase support for students from linguistically diverse backgrounds. Superintendent Tony Evers has organized an Advisory Council -- comprised of members representing schools, community organizations, and business and civic leaders -- to help Wisconsin expand opportunities for immigrants, migrants, refugees and other students from multilingual backgrounds. 

"Our schools must be safe places where learning languages and being exposed to other cultures are important school lessons," Evers said in a statement, earlier this spring. "It makes sense to strengthen our support for dual language learning for all students and especially for kids who come to our schools learning English."