Students ready to face world
By ANDREW MCGINN
Twenty-five years ago, Amy van der Meer’s dad in North Dakota was totally unconvinced that she could put a college degree in Spanish to use.
Twenty-five years later, as a Spanish teacher at Greene County High School, Van der Meer has been called on to translate for local police and the hospital, not to mention the school district.
“The world is becoming smaller,” she explained.
The proof is in the data. In 2017, more than 41 million American households spoke Spanish, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — an increase since 1990 of more than 133 percent.
The state of Iowa believes that seven recent graduates of Greene County High School will have an advantage over their peers for future career opportunities because they’re officially biliterate — that is, proficient in two or more languages.
This was the first school year in which Iowa high school students could achieve the Iowa Seal of Biliteracy, an award recognizing students who are at an intermediate level of proficiency in at least two languages, one of which must be English.
At Greene County High School’s commencement on May 26, the seven seniors were among the first in the state to sport a special medal at graduation.
The voluntary test they had to pass to earn it — administered over the course of seven days, outside of regular school hours — is muy dificil, er, very difficult.
“It’s a grueling test,” Van der Meer said, describing an exam that involves reading, writing, speaking and listening.
“I thought it was going to be some simple test,” she confessed.
The seven graduates awarded the seal were Arthur Bardole, Brittney Daniel, Kara Reed, Sydney Roberts, Claire Teusch and Morrgan Zmolek, all proficient in Spanish, and Demir Bulut.
As an exchange student from Turkey, Bulut’s second language was English.
An eighth Greene County student, sophomore Avery Bardole, also passed the test, no small feat for a student who only just completed Spanish II.
Three dozen states have approved the Seal of Biliteracy since 2011, when California became the first in the nation to award it to graduating high schoolers.
“Slowly and surely, more states are signing on,” Van der Meer said.
Iowa gave approval to the seal in 2018, when Gov. Kim Reynolds signed it into law.
School districts opt in to participate.
Proponents say that biliteracy is a critical skill for the 21st century — and they may be right.
By 2060, according to census data, the Hispanic population alone is projected to make up 28.6 percent of the nation’s population as a whole.
But even Americans proficient in both English and Spanish may one day encounter a language barrier.
Between 2012 and 2016, 21.1 percent of the U.S. population — more than 63 million Americans age 5 and older — spoke a language at home other than English, an increase from 20.3 percent between 2007 and 2011.
About 140 languages are spoken just in Iowa, according to the state.
The state believes that scholarships and job opportunities will soon be tied to the seal, which goes on a student’s high school transcript, Van der Meer said.
The test costs $17.50 to take.
“I’m curious to see if this is going to help anybody out,” she said.
Biliterate doesn’t necessarily mean bilingual, according to Van der Meer, who has been teaching high school Spanish in Jefferson since 2004.
“It means you can recognize, in two languages, certain things,” she said. “You can see it, read it and understand it.”
Whether or not someone is fluent in a language is a subjective matter.
“You can be competent in a language and not be fluent,” Van der Meer said.
She personally feels that someone must understand a language’s quirks — slang — to be fluent.
“A lot of people,” she said, “say you’re fluent if you can get business done in a second language.”
One thing is for certain: She wants more local students to consider taking the biliteracy test.
No French students took the test this year, deeming preparation too much of a commitment.
Julie Carlson, who teaches French at Greene County High School, hopes to have students next year who choose to take it.
“Amy is more convincing than I am,” Carlson joked. “It is a huge time commitment.”
Carlson also acknowledged Van der Meer for taking the lead on getting students ready for the test.
“It’s a lot of work for a teacher without récompense,” Carlson said, using the French word for reward.
For Van der Meer, the test is less about students earning a seal on their transcripts and more about whether she and fellow high school Spanish teacher Maribel Hernandez have done their jobs thoroughly.
A student may take Spanish classes all four years, but until now, there’s never been a way to gauge how much actually soaked in.
Van der Meer teaches Spanish I and IV, and then the ultimate course, Conversational Spanish.
She put all six of her Conversational Spanish students this spring up to the biliteracy test — and then stepped back and waited.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Van der Meer said. “Maybe some will pass, maybe some won’t.
“I was really thrilled when all of Conversation passed it.”