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Global Learning Scales Up

Districts build on the success of private, internationally oriented schools and foreign language programs.

Becoming more global is a familiar refrain for many a school administrator or curriculum developer wrestling with delivering 21st century skills. Over the past decade, districts have expanded their foreign language programs, added Mandarin Chinese to the mix, and in some cases launched language immersion classes in their elementary schools. Others have opened entire schools designed around international education.

Not only do these schools promote proficiency in one or more foreign languages, but they also embed international perspectives in all content areas, from social studies to the arts, and they make extensive use of online learning to interact with students and teachers in other countries.

But while initiatives like these were often regarded as experimental or, at best, unique just a few years ago, a growing number of school districts are taking global learning to the next level by replicating schools with a global bent. The increasing emphasis on globally oriented education is welcome but overdue, says Sarah Jerome, superintendent of the Arlington Heights (Ill.) School District 25 and a former president of the American Association of School Administrators. "I think we've been a pretty complacent bunch as school leaders, especially with not encouraging language courses and even letting languages drop from the curriculum," she observes.

During her AASA tenure in 2007-2008, Jerome advocated for internationally oriented curricula in schools and forged a relationship with the Asia Society, which has helped districts around the country "go global" over the past decade. It's a nonpartisan, nonprofit educational institution with a goal to promote understanding among the people, leaders and institutions of the United States and Asia.

There have been some early adopters. The Seattle Public Schools started thinking about global learning before the turn of the 21st century. In 2000, the district opened the John Stanford International School after several years of consultations with parents, educators and local business leaders, as well as extensive redesign of the elementary curriculum to contain international perspectives and professional development for the school's teachers. The K5 school also launched language immersion programs in Japanese and Spanish, chosen because of Seattle's substantial Japanese and Hispanic populations.

A similarly designed middle school, the Hamilton International School, opened in 2001. Propelled by Stanford and Hamilton's success in academic achievement and foreign language proficiency, and by strong public interest (the 250-student waiting list on opening day made it the most popular school in Seattle), the district announced in 2007 that it would convert 10 more of its 97 schools to international public schools over the next five years. "There was demand from parents and the business community for us to go into another geographical area beyond Seattle's north end," explains Karen Kodama, Stanford's first principal.

Kodama now serves as the city's international educational administrator overseeing the expansion program, which has added two additional elementary schools and one middle school over the past two years. This past fall, the district opened Chief Sealth International High School, which is the sixth of Seattle's 12 planned international schools. It provides continuity for students who have attended the district's international elementary and middle schools in past years.

The Challenges of Expansion

Providing such continuity and establishing a larger international footprint in the district have been difficult. For starters, Kodama sought to amend the official district policy to guarantee elementary immersion programs as well as continuing immersion classes in the new middle and high schools. She says that she wanted to make sure that these intensive programs— an underpinning of Seattle's international approach—would be a standard K12 practice.

Students in the John Stanford International School in Seattle perform a Japanese dance.

The revised policy also committed the district to teaching global perspectives in all subject areas, such as "studying human differences and commonalities" and "analyzing economic, technological, social, linguistic and ecological connections" between the United States and the world. "It was important to us," Kodama says of the policy additions that send the message to everyone in the district that an international curriculum is not for everyone. "The key thing was to be very clear what international education is. We didn't want just any school to say they want to become an international school just because they want to offer a foreign language. We wanted to make sure that each school taught the same components."

Those components include achieving proficiency in any foreign language taught at an international school; building a curriculum with an extensive international perspective; using technology to build global relationships; and developing "cultural competency," from understanding cultural differences globally to connecting more fully with different cultures in the local community.

Kodama has had to deal with geographical challenges as well. All six of Seattle's international schools previously operated as regular neighborhood schools that agreed to be redesigned. It has been Kodama's task to find committed elementary, middle and high schools close to the neighborhoods where students live. "You need a school community willing to go the extra mile and do this program on top of what they're doing already," Kodama explains.

She adds that parents, local businesses and educators have been largely in favor of the redesigned schools, which also give students and teachers the option to transfer to noninternational schools if they prefer. The international transformation of those schools involves a deliberate two-year process, even as they continue to operate as they have all along. Each school spends an "exploratory" year in which teachers are introduced to what will be expected of them, such as taking classes in at least one of the foreign languages taught by their school if they are not already fluent, engaging in extra professional development, and learning about the cultures and traditions of the children they are teaching.

Kodama's office also provides $15,000 for research and travel for teachers and administrators to observe international education and immersion programs at Seattle's other international schools or in other locations around the country. A second "planning" year follows, in which the future international school receives an additional $100,000, all part of the district budget, to pay teachers for developing curricula with global perspectives, to purchase curricular materials, and to upgrade technology. "Technology embeds into all aspects of teaching at our schools," Kodama explains.

This includes using online assessments for world language courses and connecting with others internationally via tools such as Skype and through organizations such as iEARN, which is comprised of over 30,000 schools and youth organizations in more than 130 countries. iEARN empowers teachers and young people to work together using the Internet and other new communications technologies. Kodama is aiming to open two or three more schools this coming fall and another three in 2013, depending on the district budget. "The hard part is the funding," adds Kodama. "If not [for funding problems], this expansion would have happened sooner."

Denver's Growing Partnerships

While Seattle's involvement with international education has been largely homegrown, Denver Public Schools created its first international school five years ago— and is planning two more—in partnership with the Asia Society, which provides instructional design, professional development and startup funding to schools looking to implement a global curriculum.

A student at the Denver Center for International Studies (DCIS) points to a world map while mentoring young students in social studies.

The Denver Center for International Studies (DCIS) serves grades 6-12 and is one of 27 schools nationwide that the Asia Society has helped launch since 2003 to create the International Studies Schools Network (ISSN). Over its first five years, DCIS, which operates as a magnet school in Denver's public school system, has grown to 650 students. More telling numbers are the 100 percent college admission rate of its most recent graduating class and the more than 200 students on the school's waiting list. Denver has again turned to the Asia Society in planning two more ISSN schools—grades K-5 and 6-12—set to open in August in another section of town. "We've provided a very clear roadmap for districts and charter schools to replicate our core so there's continuity in their overall practices," says Anthony Jackson, ISSN's executive director.

The curriculum map resembles the one in Seattle, except it emphasizes the inclusion of Asian languages and introduces a "Graduate Portfolio System," which defines and accumulates a body of standards-based student work and provides a rubric for collaborative assessment of that work. Although all three of Denver's international schools will include these features, the current expansion is not taking a cookie cutter approach. The two new additions will be designated neighborhood schools intended primarily for neighborhood youngsters. As a magnet school, DCIS is open more to the entire district.

Whereas DCIS offers Italian, Japanese, Spanish, French and Mandarin, the new 6-12 school will offer Arabic instead of Italian and Japanese. The new elementary school, meanwhile, will offer a Spanish immersion program, with an eye to Denver's—and the nation's—growing Spanish speaking population. Principals for the new schools were identified early in the planning process and have had the entire school year to plan the international curriculum, receive training from the Asia Society, and meet with principals at other ISSN schools around the country.

A DCIS student (wearing black) interns with a surgeon in India and visits a woman?s center, which teaches life skills.

They have spent much of the year at DCIS, shadowing Principal Stephen Parce, observing classes and absorbing the culture of a school in whose footsteps they will be following. "Announcing principals for the new schools a year in advance has been huge," Farmer points out, adding that there is also a program in place at DCIS to help students coming to the new schools adjust better.

Unlike the run up to opening DCIS, the plan to add the two schools in northeastern Denver generated some local opposition. "What was really interesting was that the opposition was centered around the public hearing process and not the model of what we were bringing in. The community didn't feel they had a lot of time," Farmer explains. "We spent a lot of time doing community building when we could have been working on curriculum."

What's also different in Denver is that the new schools will be among the first ISSN schools transitioning to a different funding model. Whereas in the past the ISSN has largely financed startups from such philanthropic organizations as the Gates Foundation, Tony Jackson says that the next generation of ISSN schools is being asked to match—either with district money or private donations—any funding that comes their way.

Farmer also has been forging partnerships with locally prominent companies, such as Frontier Airlines, from which she hopes to get travel vouchers so students will be able to travel to other countries on service learning projects. Students at DCIS have already traveled to Costa Rica, and Farmer envisions all students at the new 6-12 school making foreign trips after their freshman year.

Riding the Hanban Express

Denny International Middle School students in Seattle practice calligraphy in Mandarin class while educators from China observe.

Perhaps the biggest push to expand Chinese studies in American schools has come from the Chinese government. After a visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao to the United States in 2006, China launched its Hanban visiting teacher program, which allows teachers from China to work at schools in the United States for up to three years. The visiting teachers stay with host families, much the same way that foreign exchange students have done for generations. "It's a very inexpensive way to have an excellent teacher," says Seattle's Karen Kodama, who counts seven Hanban teachers at the city's international schools.

Jessamine County (Ky.) Schools Superintendent Lu Young sees more than a financial benefit to the Hanban program, which supplies her high school's only Chinese language teacher. " e availability of certified, qualified Mandarin teachers is a real challenge," she points out. "The University of Kentucky turned out just one certifi ed Chinese language teacher last year."

The Office of Chinese Language Council International in Beijing also has created and funded more than 60 Confucius Society branches at American universities and educational organizations such as the College Board. While this initiative concentrates on advancing Chinese language and culture studies at the college level, it also provides Chinese teachers for some K12 schools. 

The Herricks (N.Y.) Union Free School District, in suburban New Hyde Park, has prided itself on bringing international perspectives and advanced foreign language options to its K12 curriculum for more than a decade.  e district's middle school offers Spanish, Italian, French and Mandarin starting in grade 6, and this year one of its three elementary schools introduced a Spanish immersion program, starting with kindergarten and fi rst grade and building up to fi fth grade over the next four years.

For its Chinese language courses, Herricks has tapped into the Hanban pipeline. "Hanban brings us Mandarin," Superintendent Jack Bierwith explains, "and it puts us in touch with other people teaching the Chinese language, which is relatively new as a subject taught in American schools." Districts like Herricks are also getting help in extending the study of Chinese from the Asia Society, which has formed its Confucius Schools network of exemplary Chinese language programs at K12 schools around the country and will expand to 100 over the next three years. Herricks is among the first 20 schools participating in the Asia Society program.

A ninth grader, left, and seventh grader, right, at the Denver Center for International Studies pose with former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.

Last November the Asia Society held a summit for these schools at East China Normal University in Shanghai. They were matched with partner schools in China. This arrangement will give students on both sides of the Pacific more authentic exposure to each other's language, culture and experiences. The Herricks Middle School was matched with the Shanghai United International School. Lori Ramirez, the chair of Herricks' world language department, spent some of her time in Shanghai brainstorming curricular ideas with teachers from her new Chinese partner. Among the projects they agreed on was to have students at both schools do an exchange of letters and pictures online, in Chinese and English. A new, bilingual blog will also allow students to discuss everything from literature to current aff airs. And Herricks eighth-graders will soon use the Web 2.0 tool Voice reads to introduce their Chinese peers to their middle school.

"Just being part of the network opens up tremendous opportunities for us," Ramirez says. Earlier this year, Herricks' Chinese classes were invited to send welcome letters in Chinese to President Hu when he visited Washington, D.C., in January. "President Obama was to hand this batch of letters to him," Ramirez notes. "Our kids were very excited." "One of the other things that we took away from the trip was connecting to the other schools in the United States," adds Ramirez, who has been e-mailing with schools in Colorado and New Jersey and "sharing our trials and tribulations."

Connection to the World

But administrators who are scaling up their international education efforts in their own school districts are more often sharing success stories. Seattle's Karen Kodama recalls the Stanford fifth-grader, a six-year veteran of that school's Japanese immersion program, who spent a week in Japan with his father. The father reported later that it was his son who was in charge of the trip, whether ordering meals at restaurants or completing banking transactions in Japanese.

"To me, this is the ultimate example of cultural competence," Kodama concludes, "to be able to go out there into the world and feel that you are part of it."

Ron Schachter is a contributing writer for District Administration.