The Verona Area High School performing arts center was filled with students soon to move onto their next level of education.

For 12 of them, that means graduating high school. And they’ll do it with a recognition of their language and cultural skills through the Seal of Biliteracy, an honor in only its second year in the district.

The rest are students about to move to middle school, having spent their first six years in a language immersion program – either the Two Way Immersion Spanish program or Verona Area International School, the district’s Chinese language immersion school.

Each group was recognized on stage, which VASD director of bilingual programming and instruction equity Laurie Burgos said offered a chance for “kids to kind of be able to project themselves in the future” as the high school role models they saw in front of them.

A former middle school teacher, Burgos said it’s especially important for the outgoing fifth graders to recognize the positives about being bilingual at a time when “the identity piece becomes really important,” and being bilingual can seem like something “different.”

“We want (elementary immersion programs) to change that narrative as much as possible,” Burgos said. “This just seemed like a good opportunity to bring that counter narrative right to life.

“We need to uplift that in every way that we can,” she added.

Some of the graduating Seal of Biliteracy recipients said it was special to feel like a role model.

“It just feels so good, being an example for other youth that it doesn’t matter if you’re a Spanish-native speaker or any other language, you’re capable of learning as many languages as you want,” Carla Angel-Bautista said.

The Seal of Biliteracy, in its second year of being awarded to VASD graduates, is administered by the district and requires approval from the state Department of Public Instruction. VASD is one of three districts in the state that gives out the seal, developed in 2015.

The achievement requires students to pass tests demonstrating their linguistic capability per DPI’s requirements, including writing in both languages and test scores, and the district also added identity and cultural competency requirements in creating its program. Those requirements include reviewing global or cultural media and 20 hours of cross-cultural service learning.

“It’s really important to understand other culture and the best way to do that is through language,” recipient Riley Scheer said.

The fifth-graders from Sugar Creek and Glacier Edge elementary schools, meanwhile, will be the first to take the language skills they’ve picked up over the last six years into middle school, and the VAIS graduates will also have a more formal opportunity to continue Chinese-language instruction than they’ve had in the past.

Burgos said the ceremony both encouraged the kids and her, in seeing the attendance of so many families to midweek evening event.

“I’m so proud of them, and it also is very fulfilling to look out into the audience and see the happiness, joy and pride in their parents’ faces,” Burgos said. “Seeing that this was the first time we did this there was such a great turnout from families; it just reminded me of the importance of the relationships we do have, not just the students but their families.”

Angel-Bautista recalled her own experience here before the TWI program began, and said “there was a division” between student groups based on language and culture, and she’s hopeful that is beginning to change with the group of younger students she saw from the stage Tuesday.

“They’re going to be the example of what we’re all capable of, coming from different places,” Angel-Bautista said. “I feel really happy that the TWI program exists. It’s going to bring a lot of benefits to them in the future.”

Contact Scott Girard at ungreporter@wcinet.com and follow him on Twitter @sgirard9.