How Massachusetts Passed Legislation for the Seal of Biliteracy

Phyllis, Nicole, and Helen at the ACTFL in November 2016, when Phyllis and Helen won the MaFLAs Friend of Foreign Languages Awards.

Phyllis, Nicole, and Helen at the ACTFL in November 2016, when Phyllis and Helen won the MaFLAs Friend of Foreign Languages Awards.

In 2002, Massachusetts’ voters passed a bill that made bilingual education in Massachusetts obsolete, favoring only English instruction. In recent years, specifically with the passing of Proposition 58 in California, bilingual education has taken off, and more and more schools are starting Dual Language programs every year.

Research proves that the benefits of Dual Language education are infinite, and schools have begun to catch on to this notion. With this knowledge, three women in Massachusetts, namely Phyllis Hardy of the Massachusetts Association for Bilingual Education (MABE), Helen Solorzano of the Massachusetts Educators of English Language Learners (MATSOL) and Nicole Sherf, the Advocacy Coordinator for the Massachusetts Foreign Language Association (MaFLA) would not accept this lag in the Massachusetts education system.

With the odds stacked against them, these three women formed a coalition, which they called the Massachusetts Language Opportunity Coalition, to take on Congress with a new bill, titled the LOOK bill. The LOOK bill would allow educators to teach students in their native language, which would create more dual language schools, and increase the chances of English Language Learners (ELLs) success. We spoke with these three women regarding their journey.

One thing that stood out in our conversations with these three women was their mutual gratitude for the bond they formed through this coalition. The coalition consisted of these three women, backed by their organizations, which allowed them to work as a team to further the chances of the passing of this bill.

“I feel really, really lucky to have found this coalition. It’s been such a very interesting process for me as a foreign language educator for the past thirty years to be working so closely with Phyllis and Helen and learning about how to make language learning, a process in schools to look at all the different types of language programs that there are and all the different types of language learners that there are and, work together both on the legislative side and on the seal of bi-literacy pilot side that it really has been such an incredible learning experience and I really think a powerful experience for the people who have participated in our coalition and our pilot as well.”- Nicole Sherf

Nicole is a long-time board member of MaFLA, and was a former K- 12 French and Spanish teacher for the

first half of her career. She then earned her doctorate and started working at the college level at Salem State University teaching teachers and has been there for sixteen years, training Spanish teachers as a Secondary Education Coordinator.

Phyllis, Helen and Nicole in front of the Massachusetts State House during their 2015 hearing.

Phyllis, Helen and Nicole in front of the Massachusetts State House during their 2015 hearing.

Continue reading to see how these women were able to pass the Look Bill & Seal of Biliteracy…

The LOOK bill, which stands for Language Opportunity for Our Kids, originally passed without the Seal of Biliteracy, and these women were not about to accept that. Through this timely endeavor, they began to understand how to maneuver the legislative process. In the first legislative cycle of 2014, the women faced many challenges in passing the bill. In 2015 and 2016, they were able to hit the ground running.

The original bill was a stand-alone bill, which worked to fight the limitations of Dual Language Education, and the Seal of Biliteracy Bill was a separate entity. When the bill originally did not pass through the House, the women were extremely disappointed, but they rallied and won the support of many co-sponsors on the bill. The momentum from the bill that nearly passed at the end of 2016 allowed them to gain support for the 2017 session, where they received legislative support for co-sponsorship on the bill. By utilizing the three strengths of the women, the

Seal of Biliteracy portion of the bill was able to pass on November 14th, 2017.

Phyllis, Nicole, students Pedro Parada Campos and Caitlin Davon (from Framingham, MA, Dual Language Program), and Helen at a hearing.

Phyllis, Nicole, students Pedro Parada Campos and Caitlin Davon (from Framingham, MA, Dual Language Program), and Helen at a hearing.

One thing the women put together to assist other schools with passing similar legislation and the Seal of Biliteracy was to formulate a ‘Tool Kit.’ On their website, languageopportunity.org, a fifty-page document outlines the steps districts can take to implement the pilot in their respective school district. From ELL to foreign language, it explains the pathway award, how to get started, and how to get everyone involved. The website also discusses how to get the award approved through the school committee, how to present the awards to students and how to promote the awards in the districts.

“It’s a really comprehensive document that I presented on at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) and discussed in several field sessions that they asked for, I think it’s something that Massachusetts, even though we were just getting legislation at the time, I think Massachusetts, is further ahead of many states that have already had legislation for awhile just because of the amount of resources that we have.”- Nicole Sherf

When we asked the women what advice they would provide to schools seeking to implement the Seal of Biliteracy, they suggested creating the same type of coalition between the Dual Language and foreign language fields, including organizations similar to the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA).

“They really have a sense of supporting the English language learner in a variety of ways and they also have a lot of legislative experience. So, the legislative person at MIRA would join us in our legislative meetings and help us talk through our legislative talking points together. So that’s another voice at the table.”- Nicole Sherf

Continue reading to see how you can get legislation passed in your state…

“We had been trying to pass the Seal of Biliteracy. So, we reached out to each other, saying we’re both trying to do the same thing, in addition to the Seal of Biliteracy. We were trying to change the law for educating English language learners to be one that accepts more bilingual programs so that we no longer viewed English as the only approach. So, I think it was three legislative cycles ago, was when we reached out and we said to each other, hey, you’re doing this and we’re doing this, why don’t join we forces and do this together and we’ll do it.”- Phyllis Hardy

Phyllis Hardy, who works for MABE, decided it would be a fruitful partnership to join forces with MATSOL, which is the ESL side. The two organizations have been working together since 2002 when the Massachusetts law became more restricted; from an only English teaching approach to teaching English language learners. After a chunk of time, both organizations decided to join forces and become part of a coalition. In developing a coalition, the women became experts in their respective fields and began to work on a more comprehensive approach to the bill by vast understanding in many facets of the Dual Language field. By bringing these experts together the Dual Language movement became stronger and both the women, and the bills, were able to succeed in an extremely difficult process.

Phyllis, Nicole, and Helen with Amy Grunder at a MIRA hearing.

Phyllis, Nicole, and Helen with Amy Grunder at a MIRA hearing.

“Our takeaway is how powerful, when we all work together, how powerful we can be. I think the other pieces that are really important about the working together was how we were all extremely dedicated to be a good member, a good steering committee member. So, we could say we got to do this….And one of the three of us would step up and we might say, no, I can’t do this. You do this. Can you complete this task? And so we were always helpful. We were helpful to each other and honest with each other about what we can do. We started to understand our strengths, what we were good at.”- Phyllis Hardy

We asked what made these women so dedicated to this hard-fought mission. Their answers were nothing less than inspiring.

“I’m bilingual and I’m raising my children bilingual. I’m raising my grandchildren bilingual and I think it’s wonderful for your identity. I grew up in Puerto Rico, but now I’ve been living here in Massachusetts for almost forty years and it’s a lot of work to continue to maintain that level of proficiency when you don’t use it all the time. I see my children, how committed they are to learning the language and maintaining the development of the language. I think it has a lot to do with their identity. They understand their mom is from Puerto Rico, and that’s a major part of us.”-Phyllis Hardy.

The third woman of the Coalition, Helen Solorzano, the Executive Director of MATSOL, came from a perspective of prioritizing English learners in the movement. As they thought the Seal of Biliteracy would be a powerful tool to assist ELLs in their motivation to learn English, the three women fought tirelessly to make sure this part of the bill passed.

When asked about their motivation for the Seal of Biliteracy, Helen said, “I definitely know (the previous bill) was a really destructive change in our field and, it just didn’t serve students well and it was very frustrating for teachers because, the way the law was, it was very restrictive and, not recognizing the native language. It’s a combination of my own personal beliefs and professional beliefs about language learning and how important it is and, how to support it and also just really knowing that I was representing the field.”

There is so much that we, in the Dual Language field, can learn from the success of these three women. When branching all different sides of the Dual Language movement, the movement becomes stronger, creating a compelling force when arguing in favor of Dual Language. The persistence, drive, and motivation of these three women to make Massachusetts a more bilingual and biliterate place will allow numerous students to succeed in language, become Seal of Biliteracy recipients, and later attend college with a bit more ease because of their success in grade school. Eventually, the Seal of Biliteracy recipients will become leaders in changing our world to make it a more diverse, accepting, and kindhearted place.

Helen, Phyllis and Nicole at the Non-Profit Network Awards Ceremony in MA where they were a finalist for the Award for Collaboration

Helen, Phyllis and Nicole at the Non-Profit Network Awards Ceremony in MA where they were a finalist for the Award for Collaboration.

Arthur Chou
Author: Arthur Chou

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