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Grant Students Celebrate Diversity as Language Ambassadors

This is a photo of six Grant Middle School students standing in the hallway of their school posing for a photo.It’s your first day in a new school. You walk in the front doors and wonder where to go for your first class. And you don’t speak English.
This was a reality Helene Sahiriza faced when she started school in the United States. She had arrived from Congo and spoke Swahili. For her, the transition to American schooling was a challenge.
This year, in 8th grade and speaking fluent English, Helene volunteers as a Language Ambassador. In that role, she has the opportunity to volunteer at schoolwide events where she can serve as a translator for families. She also volunteers to be paired up with new students – who also speak Swahili – to serve as a translator, tour guide, and friend.
“I like helping out,” Helene shared. “It’s great when you’re new to school and someone can help you translate. I helped a 7th grade student just last week. He spoke Swahili and didn’t speak English well. When I first came here, no one could help me understand – so I enjoy being that person for someone else. I showed him where his classes were and how we do things here. It really makes me feel happy, talking to someone else who speaks the same language I do!”
Omari Swedi was in a similar situation when he came to the United States, which also inspired him to become a Language Ambassador.
“I want to help new students because I didn’t have anyone to help me when I started school here, and I think it can help very much,” he said. “I showed him the School Based Health Center, the lunch room, and even how to open his locker. I had fun showing him around!”
It’s the first year the Language Ambassador program is underway at Grant, but already 37 student ambassadors are involved – representing 17 languages.
At the school’s International Coffee Hour – and other parent events – the ambassadors are on hand to help welcome families and provide translations where necessary.
“I saw a lot of parents smiling,” Helene said of her experience at an International Coffee Hour event. “They felt welcome. I know many parents don’t come to school events because they feel like they won’t be able to understand the teachers because they speak a different language. Now, we can help them feel included and we can help them understand.”
Grant English as a New Language teacher Tiffany Duquette, who oversees the Language Ambassador program, said this experience not only creates a welcoming culture – it also helps set these students up for success in their future.
“The goal of the Language Ambassadors program is to develop and celebrate the multilingualism of the students at Grant while also bridging home and school through the use of language to support connections to families,” Ms. Duquette explained. “It is creating a culture of valuing and respecting different languages. And in supporting the use of students’ home languages, the hope is to also bring awareness to the Seal of Biliteracy program.”
The New York State Seal of Biliteracy is a seal of recognition that students can earn on their high school diploma, recognizing that they have attained a high level of proficiency in both English and one or more other languages. The program aims to help affirm the value of multilingualism and help make students stand out to potential employers and institutions of higher education.
In the Syracuse City School District, a districtwide ‘Pathways to the Seal of Biliteracy’ program is being implemented this year – aiming to help foster interest and pride in earning the Seal of Biliteracy. The program recognizes students in Pre-K, 5th grade and 8th grade who are on the path to developing their existing language proficiencies and/or are acquiring new languages. Helene happens to be one of the students in this program – she speaks enthusiastically about how her participation in Language Ambassadors also helps her maintain her fluent Swahili, which she notes will help her in college and beyond.
We’re proud of the Grant students who are serving as Language Ambassadors – and the entire Grant team, for prioritizing a school environment that celebrates and embraces #SCSDDiversity!
Anthony Q. Davis, Superintendent
725 Harrison Street
Syracuse, NY 13210
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