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Going Global

As the 21st-century world gets flatter, districts across the United States are building more internationally oriented curricula and programs.
Students at Vaughn International Studies Academy, a public charter school within the Los Angeles Unified School District, enriches their global understanding with an innovative curriculum. Eric O'Connell/Asia Society

Last year, fifth-graders at the Herricks Union Free School District in New Hyde Park, N.Y., studied the U.S. presidential primaries while following elections in Zimbabwe, Pakistan and Kenya. At South Brunswick High School in Southport, N.C., history students discuss battles of the Civil War via live teleconferences with counterparts in Denmark. Meanwhile the Mathis (Texas) Independent School District, a rural district of nearly 1,800 students, just hired a Chinese language teacher for the first time.

These recent developments, just samples of the more expansive international programs at the respective schools offering them, belong to a movement in a growing number of districts—spurred by national, state and grassroots initiatives—to include the larger world in American education. And the times and constituencies they serve are demanding it, some educators say.

“Who knew that mortgage foreclosures in New Jersey were going to affect the economy in Australia? We’ve seen a much greater recognition of the fact that we need to be a more global society,” says Anthony Jackson, vice president for education of the Asia Society, a New York-based organization that over the past decade has helped create the International Studies Schools Network (ISSN), which spans six states and encompasses more than a dozen secondary schools-within-schools and magnet schools charged with making K12 students college-ready and competent on the world stage.

Jack Bierwirth, superintendent of the Herricks Union Free School District, adds that parents won’t settle for anything less. “We have an extraordinarily diverse student body,” he explains, noting that 69 different languages are spoken in the homes of the 1,400 students in the district’s high school. “We’ve got kids from Romania, Poland, Egypt and Kazakhstan, and their parents want their kids to be as aware of the world as they are, and more so, whether in understanding different cultures and histories or in learning to use knowledge in a global context.”

In Lee’s Summit (Mo.) R-7 School District, just outside of Kansas City, about as far as an American district can be from any foreign country, a homegrown 21st-century learning initiative—which ranges from expanded foreign language offerings to an international studies academy—is just what the community wanted, says Superintendent David McGehee. “There’s a large segment of our demographic who consider themselves global already. It’s an expectation here,” McGehee explains, recalling that when he toured the local chamber of commerce and Rotary and Optimist clubs with the district’s new Chinese teachers, the response was, “Why didn’t you do it sooner?”

An International Lens

The education leaders in such districts agree that there’s no single roadmap to get there. In fact, many emerging international education programs are an amalgam of well-established approaches, such as teacher and student exchanges or language immersion programs, and a newer emphasis on seeing subject matter through an international lens and leveraging new technology to expand international contact.

There’s also been a growing emphasis on China in response to its newfound economic prowess as well as the cultural opportunities it offers. “Asia has become more and more our economic competitor, but it’s become a source of cooperation as well,” says Jackson. “Our mantra has been that we need to be able to cooperate, communicate and compete.”

Promoting the Chinese language in school more widely has become a major starting point, and the Asia Society and its ISSN have been in the vanguard. Last May, the organization, together with the College Board, hosted the second annual Chinese Language Conference in Chicago. “There are 300 million Chinese learning English, whereas we have tens of thousands of Americans learning Chinese, and those who do usually take two to three years at most,” Jackson points out. “That’s an approach almost guaranteed not to reach proficiency.”

Many of the 17 ISSN schools in California, Texas, Illinois, New York, Colorado and North Carolina (including four that just opened their doors) hope to teach Arabic as well, and all go farther afield than their language departments, says Jackson. “We’re attuned more to systematically integrating international content across the curriculum,” he says.

That approach translates to all disciplines, including the sciences, Jackson says. “When you’re studying biochemistry, there might be a lesson studying caloric content that could extend to what that means to world hunger and the foods available,” he suggests. “In an English course, you can still have students develop persuasive essays but ask them how they would craft them if the audience were leaders of South Africa or China.”

International Insiders

At ISSN’s five-year-old College of Staten Island High School for International Studies in New York City, students have created the International Insider, a newspaper on which they collaborate, via e-mail and blogging, with journalistic partners around the world.

In Texas, the Mathis High School for International Studies brings a multinational perspective even to its English classes, explains Principal Elizabeth Ozuna, who helped found the school three years ago. For example, students there study stories about the creation of the world, from Australia to Asia to the Western world.

“We also went through a crash course in storytelling,” Ozuna adds. In English class, students deal with literature from the Middle East to Japan, with an additional emphasis on understanding the source. “Modes of storytelling are influenced by where the author is from. That means you expose kids to all kinds of stories,” Ozuna explains. “So students are reading Shakespeare, but we’re also bringing in African drama and books such as A Chinese Cinderella, A Step from Heaven [by Korean-American author An Na] and Lost Names [by Korean-American Richard Kim].”

Second-grade student ambassadors at Richlands Primary Elementary School in the Onslow County (N.C.) School System welcome a delegation of educators from Bakkeskolen in Kolding, Denmark.

Besides launching its own schools, the Asia Society recognizes and promotes dozens of schools that are making their own international inroads, including Seattle Public Schools, which has opened three of a planned 12 internationally oriented schools; Chicago Public Schools, which has the largest Chinese language program nationwide; and Glastonbury (Conn.) Public Schools, where every student, starting in grade 1, studies one of 12 languages, including Russian and Chinese.

Global Districts

North Carolina in the World (NCIW), a statewide program based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has promoted its own version of global education and since 2005 has helped more than 50 districts forge connections with schools in other countries. The program belongs to UNC’s 30-year-old Center for International Understanding and builds on that organization’s international reach.

Participating North Carolina teachers receive professional development on incorporating global awareness into the everyday curriculum. In June, Matt Friedrick, NCIW project manager, led a dozen teachers and their principals on a visit to Jiangsu Province in eastern China, with the aim of creating 12 new partnerships with schools there and planning future activities.

“For the most part, we’re doing something that they’ve never done before. They may have had student or teacher exchange programs, but we’re trying to ingrain this experience into the culture of their school districts,” says Friedrick, who notes that most of the contact between American and foreign schools takes place via teleconferencing and other Internet-based tools. “The digital revolution has opened up the rest of the world. Most of our work has involved harnessing the Internet.”

Friedrick says that the international connections vary according to community needs. For instance, he points out, it makes sense for history students at South Brunswick High School to interact with Danish students, because the Danish pharmaceutical maker Novo Nordisk is one of the county’s largest employers, and South Brunswick’s graduates may one day be working for that company and dealing with the home office across the Atlantic.

“These students don’t need to have a deep knowledge of Danish history, but they are going to have to have to work in multicultural teams,” Friedrick says.

More recently, NCIW has expanded its program to three “global districts,” including the Onslow County School System in the eastern part of North Carolina, with an eye to making international education a K12 experience. Over the past two years, 12 of that district’s schools have partnered with schools abroad, more than 600 elementary school students have corresponded electronically with UNC students in other countries, almost 1,000 Onslow County educators have participated in a global education conference created for them by NCIW, and 34 of the district’s principals have attended NCIW professional development programs.

Onslow Superintendent Kathy Spencer has noticed a change in her schools, thanks to NCIW’s international approach and training. “You see that it starts permeating the education in our classrooms—it becomes more of a mindset,” Spencer says. “And the UNC partnership has been tremendous in terms of professional development, raising international awareness, and making sure teachers can make connections in the classroom.”

Local Efforts Cast a Wide Net

Other districts have initiated international programs of their own. Since 2001, Herricks Union Free School District has emphasized global education across all five of its schools, and with some impressive results, notes Superintendent Jack Bierwirth. He recalls one group of fifth-graders entering the annual National History Day competition with a 10-minute video on the 1989 anti-government demonstrations in China’s Tiananmen Square. As part of the project, the students tracked down one of the protest’s student leaders, as well as American governmental officials, including James Baker, Casper Weinberger and George Schultz.

“This was more than global awareness. It was having real knowledge flowing back and forth between the world and classrooms,” Bierwirth concludes. “Many other school districts were doing Johnny Appleseed and subjects like that.”

Bierwirth adds that the district’s international initiatives—which account annually for about $250,000 of the district’s $87 million budget—usually come from the bottom up, because teachers are encouraged to take risks. For instance, the middle school language department developed the idea of studying the fine arts of a particular country or culture in the languages that students are taking.

Starting in 2006, Herricks began evaluating students with the Programme for International Student Assessment’s (PISA) internationally standardized tests, which on the higher grade levels exceed even Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate measures of performance. “If you are serious about having to be compared with the rest of the world, then you need to benchmark yourselves,” Bierwirth explains.

Over the past decade in Seattle, students at the John Stamford Elementary School have gone through immersion programs in Spanish, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese covering the first half of the school day. During that time, second- and third-graders may translate what they learn about Africa or South America into their chosen language, and fifth-graders learn some of their U.S. history by visiting Web sites in foreign languages.

Through the International Education and Resource Network (iEARN), a nonprofit organization that promotes global collaboration online, Stamford students and teachers connect to a Japanese school and also conduct videoconferences with schools in Spain and Japan. “It becomes really relevant to kids when they can talk in the target language to other kids their own age,” says Karen Kodama, who runs Seattle’s International Education program. With an annual waiting list of more than 200 at Stamford, Kodama opened a second international elementary school last fall.

Meanwhile the Lee’s Summit, Mo., district recently embarked on its own international odyssey, dubbed “21st Century Learning.” The new program includes having visiting teachers from China teach three levels of Chinese annually; a course on modern global issues that is required for graduation; and the Summit International Academy, with a focus on having its 20 students conduct problem-solving simulations based on international business.

From left to right, Robert Davis of Chicago Public Schools, Peter Negroni of the College Board and Shuhan Wang of the Asia Society bid farewell at the National Chinese Language Conference this year. Asia Society

Dan Lumley, Lee’s Summit’s director of curriculum and instruction, admits that the combination of new initiatives represents a modest but necessary start in an international direction for the 17,000-student district. “Confucius says that the journey of 1,000 miles begins with a first step,” he points out.

The Asia Society’s Anthony Jackson agrees that implementing a global curriculum can be a gradual process. The organization also runs the Partnership for Global Learning, which has grown to more than 400 teachers and administrators who serve as advocates and early adopters of global learning practices at their schools.

“The key is to do it in a way that’s authentic,” Jackson says, “and to go beyond having just a festival or a day of foods from around the world.”

Ron Schachter is a contributing writer for District Administration.