WEST SRINGFIELD — Senior high school student Samuel Andica Rios came to the U.S. from Colombia in 2012, when he was 8 years old, and in just 10 years he has earned top honors for his ability to communicate in three languages.
Andica Rios, 19, is among 35 West Springfield High School students who earned a state and global Seal of Biliteracy for proficiency as a multilinguist.
For his exceptional proficiency in English, Spanish and French, Andica Rios was the only student in town this year to receive the state and global Seal of Biliteracy with Distinction.
“The first six months I was here were difficult, because I did not know English and the Spanish spoken at home was different,” he said. “There were so many things to remember.”
The seal, an insignia that appears on a student’s transcripts and diploma, recognizes their proficiency in English and at least one other language.
Springfield, Holyoke, Chicopee and West Springfield are some of the 176 school districts participating in the voluntary program that has awarded more than 4,552 students with the insignia as of July 2021.
Sharlene DeSteph, director of English language learning for the West Springfield district, said the award was made possible through the Language Opportunity for Our Kids Act of 2017 and was established in the district in the spring of the 2021-22 school year.
The number of students interested in participating in the program has increased significantly since its inception, DeSteph said.
There are two seals students can qualify for, the state Seal of Biliteracy and the state Seal of Biliteracy with Distinction.
To receive the seal, students must meet all graduation requirements and show proficiency in listening, speaking, reading and writing. In addition, students must earn a minimum score of 472 or higher on the grade 10 English portion of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test or retest, and a score higher than “intermediate high” on a department-approved world language assessment.
To earn the seal with distinction, like Andica Rios, graduating students must score 501 or higher on the grade 10 English MCAS test or retest, and a score of “advanced low” or higher on an approved world language assessment.
All human languages are eligible to be recognized by the state seal.
Other students earned seals for their language skills in Arabic, Spanish, Russian, Turkish and French, which are among the 52 languages spoken by the district’s 3,851 pupils.
Through studying language, Andica Rios said he was able to learn about people, cultures, languages and customs of the world.
The award honors the diversity of students living in town and also opens doors, he said.
Andica Rios said he has earned a full ride to four colleges and universities, including the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which he plans to attend in the fall.
Superintendent of Schools Stefania Raschilla spoke to students at the ceremony May 19, about her personal experience growing up in a biliterate household before presenting students with plaques adorned with the seals.
Keila Mutaguanda, a senior who received a seal for French and Kinyarwanda, the language of Rwanda, did not speak any English when she came to the U.S. at age 6.
With support from English as a second language teachers and friends, Mutaguanda said she was able to immerse herself in the community and local language.
“I was connected with everyone,” she said. “It is nice to know that you are not the only one (English learner).”
DeSteph said students and families receive information about the program in the district. Included is information on how and why students should test, and supports that are available to new English learners, she said.
A student who plans to test for the seal will receive support after school and help from their teachers; tutors are available, too, DeSteph said.
Student Adam Mahdi can speak English, Spanish and two different Arabic dialects.
Mahdi, now a junior, said in middle school that he realized that there were many similarities between Arabic and Spanish.
“Taking Spanish broadened my horizon,” he said.
Mahdi said he used his skills to help his father, who is a neurosurgeon, to prepare citizenship documents.
When Mahdi graduates and moves on to college, he wants to major in pre-medicine and become a doctor. He said fluency in several languages will help him connect with patients on a deeper level.
Mahdi, a refugee from Iraq, came with his family to the U.S. to flee the Syrian-Iraqi War.
Despite Mahdi’s family coming to the U.S. after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks at a time, when hate crimes against Muslims were on the rise, Mahdi said he did not experience Islamophobia.
“West Springfield has always made me feel welcome and safe,” Mahdi said. “I was able to prosper and do my best on the test, and I hope that all people coming here will feel the same.”
“The journey the students have been on shows their resilience,” DeSteph said. ”Biliteracy is a skill that not everyone has.”