Central Falls High School has just graduated more than a dozen seniors who are the first in Rhode Island to receive special recognition for speaking and reading two languages.
It’s part of a new high school diploma designed to go beyond test scores. In David Upegui’s biology classroom, you can feel the electricity of some twenty students so close to summer vacation they can taste it. Senior Helen Magana stopped by to pick up a memento from Upegui, who’s one of her favorite teachers.
“I heard they got tattoos yesterday,” Magana tells her teacher.
“I got yours,” said Upegui.
Upegui opens a cabinet and fishes out a temporary tattoo in the form of a twisted strand of DNA. He explains the meaning of the symbol, which he wears on a silver belt buckle.
“Everything that’s been around, ever alive, shares common ancestry we are related to every single living thing that has ever been on earth and that currently is,” said Upegui.
Magana takes the tattoo and promises to come back with stories of life after high school. She plans to study biology and neuroscience at Rhode Island College in the fall. But science is not her only skill: Magana is fluent in Spanish and English, and she’s one of the first Rhode Island High School students to graduate with a special seal to prove it.
“I know that having that type of recognition can open more doors to me and it can benefit me in the future so that’s why I decided to go for it,” said Magana.
To earn the seal, students in Central Falls had to maintain at least a B average in English, and pass a test to show they could read, write, speak and understand a second language. Magana grew up speaking Spanish at home with her parents, who come from El Salvador. At school she took on another challenge.
“The school has Spanish, but I decided I wanted to learn another language,” said Magana. “They offer French so I decided to go learn the basics in French.”
So how’s her French?
“Not as good as my Spanish,” said Magana with a laugh.
So Magana got the seal in Spanish. One challenge was writing, especially remembering where to put all the right accents. That’s something she had to practice on her own before taking the test. Her father Fredy Magana said it meant something to see that hard work recognized at graduation.
“I didn’t expect it until one day she said they’re going to graduate some of us as bilinguals,” said Fredy Magana through his interpreter, Central Falls English as a Second Language Director Evelyn Cosme-Jones.
Fredy Magana came to the United States in the late 1980s and later got legal status. He worked long hours in jewelry factories and construction sites, any job he could find. He wants his children to get the education he never had.
“In my country, I was only able to attend to 4th grade,” said the elder Magana. “I dreamed of being a teacher, but since the age of 8 I’ve been working with my father.”
But Magana has been a teacher for his daughter Helen and her younger sister, helping them learn Spanish by maintaining the language at home and picking up books in Spanish on trips to El Salvador. His daughter Helen tears up a little bit, hearing him talk about it.
“Just that all my hard work has, it shows results. And that I know he’s proud of me,” said Magana. “It’s a nice feeling.”
“Children have an immense capacity to learn languages especially if we start them young,” said Central Falls Administrator Evelyn Cosme-Jones.
She coordinated the pilot program for what she calls the “bi-literacy seal”. She sees it as part of a larger movement in public schools to increase the profile of world language education. She said businesses increasingly need workers who can communicate in more than one language and appreciate different cultural perspectives.
“But also just cognitively, it’s like your brain does gymnastics when you know other languages,” said Cosme-Jones. “And it helps you understand everything, I believe, so much better.”
For Cosme-Jones the bi-literacy seal is a way to recognize the value of putting your brain through those mental gymnastics and celebrate the strength that comes with diversity.