A microcosm of the global education movement has materialized in Oxford (Mich.) Community Schools, home to 4,739 students in northern Oakland County. When Superintendent William Skilling started in 2007, he had a vision for a district immersed in global learning, foreign language, science and technology that resonated with the board of education—a vision the district didn't have, according to Colleen Schultz, school board president.
Skilling brought with him a no-excuses attitude. "When I interviewed with the board, I talked about the need to internationalize American education," says Skilling. "Because our world is shrinking, our students will be competing for jobs with students from all over the world."
Through strategic planning and some clever financial reconfiguring, Skilling implemented various global programs.
Oxford schools' Fifth Core world language program requires students to take nine years of either Mandarin Chinese or Spanish. Skilling has established five sister schools in China, and both staff and students are given opportunities to travel to China each year.
"It is no more difficult to learn three languages at one time when children are 0 to 7 years old as it is to learn one," says Skilling. "We need to take advantage of this opportunity."
Simultaneously, in the fall of 2008, the district launched its engineering and biomedical science program, as it lacked a STEM program. "The truly employable workers of the 21st century are those who can create and invent," he says.
And to create interest and aptitude in STEM , the district also adopted Project Lead the Way (PLT W) curriculum for middle school students.
To engage students further in the global community, the Oxford district has structured its curriculum with global projects such as ePals, which allows students to participate in a global community of classrooms for collaboration; WISE (Web-based Inquiry Science Environment), where students analyze science controversies; and the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education, in which students participate in international projects with peers and experts.
Revenue vs. Vision
Such transformational change does not come without a challenge. Since the economic downturn, the state of Michigan has lost over 500,000 students, and Oxford schools' savings account was at the bottom of the barrel. Skilling, however, saw it as the "greatest gift." "Revenue should never drive vision," says Skilling. "By making major transformational change, we would not only get out of financial bankruptcy, but we would get out of educational bankruptcy."
Skilling says the district found funding in part by eliminating some programs that provided little value, such as business courses. While over 90 percent of the districts in Michigan still see their enrollment declining, Oxford schools have grown, which has provided additional funding for the Fifth Core language program. One major challenge, says Skilling, was attracting and retaining quality language teachers, specifically for Chinese. Skilling forged a partnership with the Michigan State University's Confucius Institute to employ Mandarin Chinese teaching interns for the district.
Over the next few years, Skilling has mapped out additional courses he plans to implement throughout the district in both STEM and language learning. "His vision, work ethic, knowledge—they're all very motivating for all of us," says Schultz.
Oxford schools are trying to receive International Baccalaureate (IB ) World accreditation to provide support for challenging international education programs. While this includes a full rewrite of the K12 curriculum, professional development and training, Skilling believes it's well worth the extra work.
Marion Herbert is associate editor.