Seattle's students are called "scholars" by the district's administration. And to complement the compliment, the district's enrollment guide features this mission statement by Superintendent Raj Manhas: that "every student regardless of race, gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic background will graduate and be fully prepared to lead a successful life." But accomplishing that in a system as culturally vast as Seattle's seems nearly unattainable: Of its near 47,000 students, 6,000 are bilingual. And of that, 121 different languages are registered. In the course of a day, says Executive Director of Student Services Michelle Corker-Curry, you could hear, read, plan for, or talk about 90 of them.
So Seattle Public Schools created a unique approach to caring for its multi-language population. For starters, most materials for students and parents are translated in the district's top-10 languages: from Tagalog, the language of the Philippines, to Tigrinya, spoken in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Israel. And beyond dual-language instruction which Seattle sports at three of its sites Seattle created a culturally responsive teaching model that helps students and those who teach them learn to better communicate with cultures not their own.
Winds of change: Until 2003, Seattle suffered from severe multicultural issues and a widening achievement gap. With a high Latino population that the district wanted to serve and a volatile East African community, "we just got in a room and started talking about what we need[ed]," says Corker-Curry. The result: a systemwide move toward "cultural competency," using a multi-pronged approach to making its vast population comfortable with one another.
The multi-pronged approach: Bilingual Orientation Centers serve students new to the United States and help them learn English quickly; a Bilingual Family Center helps parents learn about enrollment, school transportation, and various school activities. Classes on world languages and cultures and mandated cultural responsibility classes for staff such as "Thanksgiving: A Native American Perspective," all round out Seattle's comprehensive approach to whole-globe learning.
How they get there: Seattle is a choice-based system: with some restrictions, parents can choose to send their children to any of the district's 102 schools, whether to participate in the John Stanford's Japanese and Spanish immersion programs, or the African-American Academy's emphasis on the history, culture and heritage of that group.
Language lessons: Seattle students with limited English receive English Language Learners instruction from teachers, and native language support from bilingual instructional assistants. These ELL programs are available at many elementary schools.
Dual immersion: This is part, but not all, of the picture: "Dual language, to me, is just a term sweeping the nation," says Corker-Curry, who works directly with Superintendent Manhas. "I believe in cultural competency teaching." Although Seattle offers two dual-immersion programs at schools in its district, with a third on the way, Seattle's students learn more about speaking with each other than just speaking another language.
Price of progress: Nearly $3 million yearly is spent on language assistants and translation services in Seattle's public schools.
Seattle's challenge: If Seattle has a challenge, it's finding teachers. "It's one thing to be bilingual; but to be fluent in reading and writing is very different," says Corker-Curry.
Students learn from example: Seattle Public Schools' Superintendent Raj Manhas is the first super in the country who speaks three languages, his first being Punjabi. School Board President Brita Butler-Wall is fluent in English and Swedish.
Jennifer Esposito is a freelance writer based in Boston, Mass.