PORTLAND — When Rachel Martinez-Regan graduated from Corvallis High School this month, her diploma had a little something extra — an embossed seal certifying that she is bilingual.
She is one of more than a dozen students at the Oregon high school who earned the distinction based on their proficiency in both English and Spanish. The honor is part of a pilot project led by several school districts in the state with dual-language programs, and the Oregon Department of Education plans to make the bilingual seals available statewide next year.
California, New Mexico, Washington, Illinois and Louisiana are among the other states that are recognizing and rewarding bilingual education.
Martinez-Regan said the bilingual program was academically challenging, but she’s certain it will give her career plans a boost.
“I’m thinking of becoming a lawyer, to give the Spanish-speaking community a voice,” said Martinez-Regan, who is half Latina but did not speak Spanish before enrolling in the program. She will attend Yale University this fall.
Dual-language programs have gained in popularity across the country as employers seek bilingual, bicultural workers, and more parents view bilingualism as necessary for their children’s success in a globalized world.
Such programs are offered in Spanish, Mandarin, Vietnamese and Russian, among other languages, and many have waiting lists. Enrolled students take literacy and academic subjects in a foreign language for at least part of the school day.
Experts say dual programs and the languages they teach also reflect the nation’s growing diversity and the fact that students who speak a language other than English at home are among America’s fastest-growing populations.
Congress first mandated bilingual education in 1968 to keep non-English-speaking students from falling behind their peers, by teaching them academic subjects in their native language while they also learned English. Bilingual programs were put in place throughout the United States and flourished for several decades.
But as the number of immigrants, especially Asians and Latinos, exploded in the 1980s and 1990s and continued to grow, there was a backlash to ensure English did not lose its primacy. More than 20 states made English their official language.
Critics, including some immigrant parents, said bilingual education was costly and ineffective for English-language learners. Several states, including California and Arizona, banned bilingual education outright.
In recent years, though, bilingual education has regained its popularity and is increasingly attracting native English speakers. The number of dual-language programs, which bring together native English students and English learners in one classroom, ballooned from about 260 nationwide in 2000 to about 3,000 today, according to the Maryland-based National Association for Bilingual Education.
“American parents are coming to the conclusion that the lives and the economic opportunities of their children are tied to being bilingual,” said the group’s executive director, Santiago Wood.
At Corvallis High School, bilingual seals were awarded on the basis of coursework, bicultural knowledge, and a bilingual exit interview and assessment, said Amanda Filloy Sharp, who teaches Spanish-language courses in literature, history and geography at the school.
“These students are not just able to speak academically in both Spanish and English, they also have a deeper understanding of and connection to the local Spanish-speaking community,” Filloy Sharp said.
California, the first state to adopt a biliteracy seal two years ago, has granted more than 30,000 diplomas with seals to students. State records show the seals recognize more than 40 different languages. The California Legislature, meanwhile, is considering a bill that would overturn the bilingual education ban.
Critics such as Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, whose organization English for the Children helped dismantle bilingual education in California and elsewhere, say the push for bilingual classrooms remains misguided.
In dual-language programs, Unz said, immigrant children may be “used as unpaid tutors” and “English-speaking children who come from affluent families will benefit much more than English learners.”
But in Oregon, a group of educators, university and state officials says the programs help close the achievement gap for English learners. Several districts with dual-language programs that extend from elementary to high school are working with area universities to help evaluate the students.
Graduates with the seals could get college credit or advanced placement in college courses, said David Bautista, assistant superintendent in the Oregon Department of Education Equity Unit.
“A world-class education needs to teach fluency in more than one language. In other countries that’s already embedded,” Bautista said, adding that there are about 70 dual-language programs in Oregon and the state’s goal is to expand their numbers.
Corvallis High School graduates who earned the seal this year have the same level of language proficiency as Spanish majors who have earned a bachelor’s degree in a university Spanish program, said Ron Mize, a professor in the School of Language, Culture, and Society at Oregon State University.
Most of the students started learning Spanish in elementary school. “The seal is something students can do to stand out from their peers,” Mize said. “That’s the kind of commitment colleges are looking for.”