When Districts Go Global

(filo and mstay/iStockPhoto.com)
Does your school have stronger ties to Mumbai or Marrakesh than to other schools in your district? It might be time to leverage district resources. (filo and mstay/iStockPhoto.com)

One doesn’t have to look hard, in this country, to find terrific examples of international education in practice. Hundreds of schools make it a priority to interest their students in global affairs, teach them foreign languages, and introduce them to people and places outside the US.

It’s not so easy to find whole districts that give priority to international studies, though. For the most part, individual schools have had to go it alone, building their programs without much help from their district offices or input from neighboring schools. Ironically, many have cultivated better relationships with their partners in Mumbai or Marrakesh than they have with educators on the other side of town.

But there are distinct advantages to a district-wide approach, especially when it comes to the sharing of scarce resources.

For example, consider the teaching of Chinese and Arabic, which are becoming increasingly critical to American business, culture, and politics. Given how hard it can be to find people qualified to teach such courses, and given how hard it is to predict student interest in them, most schools are reluctant even to try adding them to the curriculum.

However, by taking advantage of its economy of scale, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has managed to create thriving programs in Chinese and Arabic over the past decade. This year alone, 12,000 of the district’s students are enrolled in Chinese, making it far and away the largest such program in the country.

Additionally, CPS has launched new heritage language programs for students from Spanish-speaking families, it offers extensive professional development programs for its language teachers, sponsors a city-wide Model United Nations program, and last year held its first International Education Conference. Such efforts would be extremely difficult for individual schools to pull off on their own.

“It all starts with the Mayor,” explains Robert Davis, Jr., manager of CPS’s World Languages and International Studies program (one of the few district offices of its kind anywhere in the country). “From day one, he’s been focused on making Chicago a truly international city, and he’s been willing to make the necessary investments.”

School districts have a lot more than money and human resources to contribute to international education, though. Even in much smaller school systems, district administrators are well-placed to get such efforts started, keep momentum going, rally public support, ensure the quality and consistency of  programs, and cultivate relationships with local businesses, universities, and anybody else who might have relevant expertise to share with the schools.

In Long Island’s Herricks school district, for example, it was the superintendent, Jack Bierwirth, who urged teachers to integrate global issues into their classes. A relatively affluent district just east of New York City, Herricks was regarded as high-performing when Bierwirth arrived, in 2001, and it already had in place a full complement of advanced placement courses and extra-curricular programs. Parents and staff agreed, though, that global studies would add an important dimension to the curriculum.

Since then, the district has provided coordination and support for what has become largely a teacher-driven effort to bring international issues into the classroom whenever possible, whether by assigning students to read Russian novels in English, to study Mexican-American relations in U.S. History, or to experiment with Japanese printmaking in art class. His job is now to “stoke the fire,” says Bierwirth, by finding additional resources and opportunities for students and teachers. For example, he cultivated a relationship with the nonprofit Foreign Policy Association, which now provides frequent speakers for school events and invites students and teachers into Manhattan for lectures by foreign dignitaries and policy experts.

Schools shouldn’t have to figure out for themselves how to bring the world into the classroom, Bierwirth adds. “There’s strength in numbers. And that means getting the whole district involved.” 

Author: Rafael Heller

Discussion Questions: What's the role that the district can play in increasing global learning? How can state departments of education support districts in this work? What’s an appropriate reply to a district-level official who argues that global studies simply aren’t a high priority, given urgent demands for better math, science, and reading instruction, professional development, afterschool programs, and so on? 

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