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Teaming up to support New Mexico’s Seal of Bilingualism-Biliteracy

view of graduating students hats

By Leslie Nail | May 21, 2020

Across New Mexico, several thousand high school students have graduated with a special honor affixed to their diplomas: the State Seal of Bilingualism-Biliteracy. The New Mexico Public Education Department (NMPED) adopted the seal program in 2014, one of the first states to do so, and began awarding seals in 2016.

Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Southwest is supporting NMPED and other partners in our Southwest English Learners (SWEL) Research Partnership to inform their focus group study to help the state better understand districts’ challenges and successes as they implement the State Seal of Bilingualism-Biliteracy. The goals are to increase students’ participation and access to the seal, including English learner students, Native American students, and students with disabilities.

REL Southwest principal researchers Jill Walston, PhD, and Pia Peltola, PhD, are leading the collaborative teamwork with our partners. “New Mexico PED wanted to conduct the focus group study because they want to better understand how implementation is going. Depending on what the data shows, they may consider strengthening or changing policy requirements or the guidance they provide,” Dr. Peltola notes. “They care tremendously about the seal award and ensuring students’ equitable access to the seal opportunity.”

New Mexico’s Bilingualism-Biliteracy Seal

To date, 32 New Mexico districts and charter schools are implementing the state-approved seal opportunity. Seals awarded recognize proficiency in at least one language other than English, such as Spanish, French, Chinese, or Korean, and tribal languages such as Navajo, Tewa, or Zuni. 

To demonstrate achievement, students must develop and carry out a rigorous four-year plan. A transcript bearing the seal can indicate to prospective universities and employers the student’s persistence, in addition to proficiency in the non-English language. There is some evidence from California that having the seal may be beneficial for job applicants in the hiring process when employers are seeking bilingual employees.1 However, because the Seal of Biliteracy is a relatively new program, few research studies have been completed. The SWEL partnership members are eager to contribute to the field with this focus group research.

NMPED’s Language and Culture Division established four pathways that districts can adopt by which students show evidence of proficiency. The pathways include tribal language certification provided by an individual tribe; course credits plus an assessment; course credits plus an alternative process portfolio; or an assessment plus an alternative process portfolio. The student-produced portfolio involves a presentation, interview, work sample, and self-reflection. By offering pathways that reflect the state’s cultural and linguistic diversity, the program promotes equity and affirms the value of the student’s first language.

Collaborative planning

NMPED called on REL Southwest to help plan the biliteracy seal focus groups. Leading up to the focus group sessions, REL Southwest held three planning workshops for PED members and others across the state who served on the project team. Each workshop included presentations by REL Southwest experts as well as guided discussions to help members apply the information and best practices.

The first workshop opened with an overview of the effective use of focus groups as a research method. Guided discussion led team members to articulate the specific goals and purpose of the project. Based on that discussion, REL Southwest staff began to draft key focus group questions and protocols. Members received information on best practices for writing focus group questions and provided multiple rounds of invaluable feedback on the questions drafted by the REL Southwest team. Dr. Walston notes, “Our New Mexico partners worked hard to create focus group questions that would elicit specific information from practitioners that will inform the state’s efforts to support successful implementation of the seal.” The team created questions to address key areas of interest including recruiting students, communicating with parents, pathways, students with IEPs, needed resources, and recommendations.

Another important topic addressed was focus group composition and selection. What kinds of groups did the partners want to hear from? The members identified the following participant groups:

  • Bilingual and world language teachers.
  • Bilingual and world language teachers of students with disabilities.
  • Bilingual program district directors.
  • Bilingual program district directors in nonadopter schools.
  • Tribal education directors.
  • High school students.

Discussion of selection criteria and recruitment strategies for individual participants followed, and the group created a recruitment plan.

Sharing best practices for moderating focus groups, including focus group note-taking, was another key planning element. NMPED recruited focus group participants and David Rogers, who is the executive director of the nonprofit Dual Language Education of New Mexico and a member of the seal partner team, recruited staff volunteers, all current or retired educators, to serve as focus group moderators and notetakers.

In addition, Rogers generously offered focus group meeting space at the organization’s annual conference and other support. La Cosecha is the largest dual language conference in the country and was scheduled for November 13–16, 2019. The plan was ready for action!

Conducting the focus groups

The day before the conference began, Dr. Walston and Dr. Peltola provided a training session for the focus group moderators and notetakers. “They were amazing,” Dr. Peltola recalls. “We were a bit concerned that our training time wasn’t long enough, but they were all so good! They just jumped in. We were very impressed.” The volunteers were trained in moderator and notetaker techniques and protocol, goals of the project, and intent of each focus group question and probe. REL staff provided focus group moderators with a protocol that included the focus group questions and a template for notetakers.

Nine biliteracy seal focus groups were conducted at the La Cosecha conference, and one virtual focus group was held later. Participants included school- and district-level staff, tribal educators, and students.

The focus-group audio recordings were then transcribed. REL Southwest staff and New Mexico partners began coding and analyzing the data. The findings will guide the state’s decisions on how best to support districts implementing the seal. Post–focus group workshops are designed to ensure understanding of the coding and data analysis procedures and, ultimately, to support NMPED in using the information and communicating plans for district support.

Student voices

Although REL Southwest’s efforts directly support our partners at NMPED, all parties hope that the ultimate beneficiaries of our work will be students. Two sample comments from the student focus group remind us of the importance of our work.

“The bilingual seal really distinguishes you from other people…. [F]our years of putting your work into something, it helps you be determined…. I feel like it helps you set a goal and helps you pursue that goal and finish…. So, I feel like that’s going to help us in college.”

“I feel like it helps you get more involved in your community because…in our school, we have to do a certain amount of hours of community service…. It helps you bond with other people that you don't know, even…kids from lower grades that are pursuing the bilingual seal as well. [I]f you apply to colleges, if you apply to scholarships, they're going to be looking for why you stand out or why you are different from the rest. And I feel that the bilingual seal really puts someone out there.”

1 Gándara, P. (2014). The value of bilingualism and the seal of biliteracy in the California labor market. Retrieved from

This work was funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) under contract 91990018C0002, administered by American Institutes for Research. The content of this blog post does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. government.

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Author Information

Leslie Nail photo

Leslie Nail

Communications Specialist | REL Southwest