The word "globalization" doesn't often conjure images of the U.S. heartland, but one Oklahoma district is going global through an innovative approach to teaching foreign language. Jenks Public Schools Superintendent Kirby Lehman is a strong supporter of foreign language and cultural integration. His appreciation for Chinese education led him to create Chinese language and exchange programs for Jenks Middle School and Jenks High School. Thanks to two grants from the Department of Education's Foreign Language Assistance Program (FLAP), the district will be able to expand the program to two other schools, Southeast Elementary and East Intermediate.
FLAP gave $12.4 million in grant money to public primary and secondary schools to support "critical foreign languages" such as Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Russian, to help students compete in a global marketplace.
Increased Cognitive Skills
This is exactly the reason Lehman wanted to expand his Chinese program. FLA P awarded Southeast Elementary School $500,000 to bring a Chinese immersion program to the elementary level starting in September. "Recent research has shown that immersion programs can increase cognitive skills and make children more creative in their problem solving," says Marilyn Livingston, site administrator at Southeast Elementary.
Fifty of the 250 incoming kindergarteners and first-graders will be placed in the immersion program. Those students will spend half their day learning the core curriculum in English and the other half in Mandarin Chinese. The $500,000 will be used over five years as the students progress through the school system. After graduating from Southeast Elementary, the students will continue their studies at the Sino-Trojan Academy in East Intermediate School. This school was awarded $300,000 to expand its language and immersion program. Programming Director Cheryl McCord says that Jenks aims to merge "the best practices from Chinese education with the best practices from American education" to create "global students."
Best Chinese Practices
The best practices from Chinese education include a longer school day and a longer school year, which are some of the reasons why the participating students in the elementary school program will most likely be selected on a volunteer basis. McCord and other program affiliates emphasize the fact that this program goes way beyond the classroom, and that the families of these students will be heavily involved. Families of selected students will attend a weeklong summer day camp to prepare them for the commitment they will be making. "We are looking for forward-thinking parents who will support their children's language immersion program," says McCord.
Jenks Assistant Superintendent Debbie Burchfield learned about the Foreign Language Assistance Program through a contact at the Confucius Institute at the University of Oklahoma. "However," Burchfield adds, "no one in our district had the time necessary to devote to the rather arduous task of writing this grant application." Instead, Jenks hired Heartland Consulting, a lobbying firm based in the Tulsa area. After a year of lobbying in Washington, D.C., and revisions to its grant request, the district received the two sizeable awards.
This is not the district's first language immersion program. East Elementary also utilized its high population of Spanish-speaking students to implement a Spanish immersion program.
In part because of these language immersion programs, in 2005, the district received the coveted Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, the national highest Presidential honor for quality and organizational excellence. This district gives new meaning to the phrase "Think globally, act locally."
Audra V. Pace is a freelance writer based in Dobbs Ferry, New York.