Hartford students — fluent in American Sign Language and Ukranian — among those honored with bilingual certification
By Ted Glanzer, Hartford Courant, Jun 12, 2022 at 6:00 am
Hartford — Nicole Tirado and Mark Rokycky may be graduating from two different Hartford high schools this week, but they share a lot in common.
Both are headed to UConn this fall, with Tirado, the salutatorian of Weaver High’s Class of 2022, set to major in biology, while Rokycky, a Wethersfield resident who is graduating from University High School of Science and Engineering, is entering the university’s honors program.
Both are bilingual — Tirado in English and American Sign Language, Rokycky in Ukrainian and English — and have used their grasp on their respective languages to provide support for their families, albeit in different degrees, when needed.
They both experienced hardships as a result of the communities they grew up in, only to emerge more resilient.
Both were among the 120 students who received the Connecticut State Seal of Biliteracy, which recognizes public high school graduates who have attained a level of proficiency in English and one or more other languages.
And both were among six students who were feted by the Board of Education recently for either being trilingual or, in Tirado’s and Rokycky’s cases, who were the first graduates of Hartford schools who were proficient in their respective languages outside of English.
“We are very much in support of language learning in Hartford public schools,” Torres said. “[Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez] is in full support of that. … We know our students after school may go into the military, they may go to college, they may go into the workforce, but this seal, which goes on their high school diploma and their transcript, will also set them apart in terms of global literacy and being able to compete in a very competitive job market. These skills and this honor is setting them up for success in whatever path they choose.”
Students receive the seal by first meeting the high school graduation requirements for English, and then, through a state-approved assessment, demonstrate proficiency in one or more languages other than English, Torres said.
So far, more than 400 Hartford students have received the State Seal of Biliteracy in the four years the district has been a part of the program.
It’s something near and dear to Torres, a former world language teacher and a bilingual educator who first spoke English and then became biliterate in Spanish when she was in college.
“It’s always been a passion of mine that our students graduate with those skills,” she said.
‘I’m just so proud if it’
Growing up with parents who are hard of hearing, Tirado, learned to sign words before she knew how to speak them.
She’s been signing for so long that she processes words in American Sign Language and vocally in English pretty much at the same time.
“Typically when I speak to someone, I speak with my hands as well,” she said. “So I kind of tie in sign language with my natural speaking. It’s muscle memory for me.”
Tirado, who is not hard of hearing, has served as a conduit for her parents to help navigate their surroundings, something that led to some teasing from her peers when she was growing up.
“I did get some negative feedback growing up because some people don’t understand how the deaf and hard-of-hearing world works,” she said. “When you’re deaf, you’re not able to hear all the vocal sounds so you have to make it yourself. So that’s why some people made fun of my parents for the way that they spoke, and I would always translate for them.
“I kind of brushed it off because they don’t understand, because it’s normal for me. I grew up around the deaf community so I was able to see their struggles.”
There were other challenges as well, including English’s ever-morphing lexicon.
“Sometimes it will get frustrating because now the English language is changing with words that need to be spoken,” she said. “So some of those words are hard to translate because those words are not words in sign language.”
But Tirado is thrilled with having earned the state seal, as she believes it will raise awareness for the often insular deaf and hard-of-hearing community.
“I’m just so proud of it,” she said. “I feel like I’m able to speak up for the deaf community because it’s very small. I always want to be able to get them recognized for what they need, not just as being disabled. My parents and I, we don’t think it’s a disability. We think it’s a strength.”
‘It’s been really challenging’
Rokycky, whose mother and her parents emigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine, has been steeped in the Ukrainian community in Greater Hartford since he was little, including attending Ukrainian Saturday school for 13 years and joining the Plast Ukrainian Scouting Organization.
Russia’s recent full invasion of Ukraine, which is part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s effort to reunite the old Soviet Union, has roiled Rokycky’s family in Connecticut and abroad.
Rokycky said he checks social media and other sites frequently throughout the day for updates on the war.
“For our family it’s been really challenging,” he said. “I have over 50 relatives in Ukraine. … I’m constantly looking at updates, on Twitter or whatever. … Putin does not believe in Ukraine’s right to independence. So his full frontal invasion of Ukraine is just a tragic escalation of a conflict that started a long time ago.”
Some of his family members were accepted into the U.S. through Uniting for Ukraine.
It’s a far cry from the summer of 2019 when he and his family traveled to Ukraine for three weeks and he helped interpret a bit for his family.
“I was able to communicate with my relatives there, but also with others when we toured the country,” Rokycky said. “I was able to understand what was going on and actually talk to people on the street or on the train or on the plane that we took. It was really an incredible experience.”
Rokycky says he may ultimately study law, with an eye toward holding public office, though he may also focus on business as well. He also appreciates the significance of receiving the Seal of Biliteracy.
“It’s an honor to be the first person certified as proficient in Ukrainian in Harford Public Schools,” he said. “I wish it were under better circumstances.”