Preparing Urban Youth to Succeed

Students at New York City's Henry Street School for International Studies. Photo: Eric O'Connell
Students at New York City's Henry Street School for International Studies. Photo: Eric O'Connell

In its structure and performance, the American high school has remained unchanged despite dramatic transformations in the U.S. economy and in the educational expectations of the job market. Moreover, efforts to define high school graduation requirements based on the competencies needed in postsecondary education and high-performance jobs indicate a troubling lack of correspondence between the content of the typical high school curriculum and the knowledge and skills students will need. As the world has been made smaller by technology and as national and regional economies have become more interdependent, some of the foremost 21st-century skills students will need are a substantial awareness and understanding of world cultures, the ability to communicate across national and regional boundaries, and the capacity to work with others who bring with them differing cultural assumptions.

This article describes an approach to urban school reform that responds to the need for smaller, more effective secondary schools that prepare students for postsecondary education and help them develop the knowledge and skills needed for global competency. In September 2003, the Asia Society, an international nonprofit organization headquartered in New York, received a generous five-year grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a network of 10 small, internationally themed urban secondaryschools. The schools will be located in New York City, Los Angeles, Charlotte, and other urban school districts across the nation. Half of the schools will encompass grades 6-12 and the other half, grades 9-12.

The core idea of these schools is that international studies can be a catalyst for urban high school reform. Urban high school students deserve an opportunity to develop the capacity to be successful within the global environment. To give them this opportunity, however, requires a new approach to curriculum, instruction, and school culture, as well as the development of new kinds of partnerships with universities and cultural institutions.

Currently, there is no one school that completely exemplifies all facets of an international studies school, but there are dozens of excellent schools, public and private, that provide a glimpse of the overall vision of a small, internationally themed high school. Many of these schools have been identified in the past two years through their participation in the competition for the Goldman Sachs Foundation Prizes for Excellence in International Education. I will use examples drawn from these schools to illuminate key dimensions of the kind of school we are working to develop.

Curriculum and Instruction
Unlike large, comprehensive “shopping mall” high schools, our international studies schools will have a clear, focused mission: to prepare every student for postsecondary education and for working and living in a global society. As in the most successful schools, teachers and students will know what the focus is and know why they chose to be there.

A consistent, curriculum-wide emphasis on international content and the study of international issues will provide a unifying framework for the instructional program. The international focus will also stimulate the development of valuable habits of mind, such as analyzing the validity of information from a variety of perspectives; exploring and understanding linkages across cultural, economic, and political lines; and understanding the significance of the past with respect to current events.

The schools will combine international content with state standards to enrich and deepen the state curriculum. An interdisciplinary approach will make learning a more holistic experience for students. For example, one urban 6-12 school that has an international education program in place has organized a global studies curriculum around key themes: environment and health, government, politics and current events, cultures and societies, and economics and interdependence. When the focus is on environment and health, the science teacher within an interdisciplinary team of teachers may take the lead in developing individual and comparative case studies that explore important issues such as communicable disease in Brazil and China, the use of natural resources in Kenya and Haiti, or health and nutrition in sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean.

Even within individual disciplines and traditional courses, international perspectives can be introduced to provide a broader context for understanding. Courses on American history or American literature, for example, might approach the subject matter through the eyes of immigrants, organizing learning around big ideas like the meaning of becoming an American or the nature of the American identity. An English class might be organized around the theme of human rights, with students learning about the history of child labor in the United States, Asia, and Africa through literature by American, Asian, and African authors. A biology class could focus on global climate change and world ecological systems.

Beyond the core college-preparatory curriculum, our international studies schools will offer required and elective courses that explore world regions and cultures in depth. Students will learn about regional history and geography and about political, social, and economic systems. The goal of such courses will be for students to begin to see the world, including the United States, from others’ perspectives. Thus an East Asian Studies course might examine World War II from the Japanese perspective, an African Studies course could investigate the differences between an individual world view and the community-centered world view that is fundamental to most African cultures, and a Middle Eastern Studies course might address the issue of stereotypes about Middle Easterners by having students read both modern Middle Eastern literature and Arabic folktales in translation.

A fundamental element of an international studies curriculum is the study of world languages. As Myriam Met argues elsewhere in this special section, development of language proficiency not only provides the means for communication across world regions but is essential to understanding world cultures. Each of our schools will provide an opportunity for all students to study one or more world languages throughout their school careers. We intend for the schools to offer at least one Asian language, but here we run headlong into the paucity of well-trained Asian language teachers in the United States. In small schools particularly, where the number of students in the early developmental phases may not justify having a full-time language teacher, it will be necessary to come up with creative approaches to providing language training, such as working in partnership with local universities and community colleges or with groups offering heritage language instruction. Students who come to school with competencies in English and another language spoken in the home will be encouraged to use both languages as tools for learning, while also developing competence in a third language.

A coherent, focused curriculum is essential; however, efforts to “internationalize” the curriculum by infusing it with international content and providing foreign language instruction will fall short if a school’s approach to instruction fails to engage its students. In a recent MetLife survey of seventh- and 12th-graders, the students’ most frequent explanation for both skipping school and dropping out was that “school was boring.” [1] Decades of research on student motivation show that students enjoy learning and exert more effort when they are active participants and are given opportunities to discuss ideas and grapple with challenging concepts.

One approach to the teaching of world history exemplifies the kind of active, inquiry-oriented instruction that will characterize our schools. In this program, standards-based curricular units are organized around important concepts and questions such as “the rise of democratic ideas” and “Are there universal human rights?” Students are extensively engaged in group work that is carefully orchestrated to ensure that low-achieving students are not marginalized within the team. Students are expected to research, develop, and defend a position as a way of demonstrating their learning. In our schools, rigorously juried projects, questions requiring the analysis of primary sources, and other forms of authentic assessment will provide students engaging ways to show the knowledge and skills they have mastered.

The use of technology will be integrated throughout the curriculum, providing teachers and students enhanced access to the world’s archives of documents and images. Traveling via the Internet, a course can start in sub-Saharan Africa; move through the Middle East, India, and Southeast Asia; travel around the Pacific Rim; and end in Europe, with students reading English or indigenous-language newspapers and visiting virtual museums and libraries throughout the journey. Computer simulations enable students to research and examine alternatives for solving the world’s problems. Global networks such as iEARN (International Education and Resource Network) make it possible for students to use the Web and other technologies to engage in collaborative educational projects that both enhance learning and make a difference in the world. Through e-mail and videoconferencing, students can converse instantly with other students almost anywhere in the world.

School Culture
Students in our international schools will be there by choice, and the goal in every instance is to recruit a student body that is representative of the ethnic, gender, socioeconomic, and academic diversity of the urban district. Above all, the schools will be “cultures of success” with high expectations for every student reflected in a rigorous course of study that goes beyond state or district requirements. Through the development of students’ global knowledge and competence, we hope to cultivate in these primarily working-class and minority youths the belief that they have both the right and the capacity to be successful on the world stage.

Global awareness promotes the kind of understanding and acceptance of ethnic, cultural, and religious differences required in an increasingly diverse society. Our schools will help students recognize the interdependency of the world’s cultures and inspire them to act with tolerance and understanding within their own communities. The content of the curriculum will also allow students to discuss the meaning of race and ethnicity in their own lives.

In addition to virtual exchanges through technology, we aim to give each student the opportunity to travel abroad or to host an exchange student. These are powerful means to live and converse with others from different backgrounds and to challenge stereotypes. We know of one small Texas school that annually takes its entire sophomore class to Zacatecas, Mexico, for a weeklong exploration of the city’s history, culture, and traditions. Travel and exchange programs can give students insights into other cultures that cannot be achieved in the classroom.

For teachers, the culture of the school will foster collaboration and continuous learning. One of the great advantages of small schools is that teachers can regularly work together to develop the curriculum and to strengthen one another’s instructional skills. To improve their capacity to teach about the world, teachers will also establish connections outside the school, with university area studies departments and with such organizations as Asia Society, the National Consortium for Teaching about Asia, and World View. In addition, teachers will be encouraged to apply for Fulbright Fellowships and other international scholarships for study abroad.

A core component of the schools will be partnerships that support the focus on international education. Partnerships with university area studies and language studies departments will be especially critical if these new schools are to provide content training for teachers, resources to support teaching, and opportunities for university faculty members to work with teachers in their classrooms. Creative partnerships will also allow students to take advantage of university resources on campus, as in the connection already made between our Los Angeles school, which opened this fall, and UCLA’s Fowler Museum of Cultural History. Students will learn about world cultures through the museum’s vast resources and learn how to view cultures, including their own, through the eyes of a museum curator.

Connections to cultural organizations and to policy centers, such as the Council on Foreign Relations or local offices of the World Affairs Council, will provide students and teachers access to the most current thinking on world events. Partnerships with internationally oriented businesses and nonprofit organizations will offer students opportunities for internships in which they can “try on” potential internationally focused careers and fulfill community service requirements in ways that contribute to important international causes.

Toward Excellence and Equity
Like all significant change in education, the development of these international studies schools will be marked by numerous challenges— predictable and unpredictable. And it will take years of work to fully realize the vision laid out here. The schools I have described are works in progress— some more fully developed today than others — that aim to break the mold of American high schools. By combining the best of what we know about educating adolescents with the best practices of exceptional internationally focused schools across the country, we intend to work with urban districts to design urban secondary schools that prepare students to succeed in postsecondary education and to understand the interdependence of countries and cultures in a world society.

Recognizing that the world has changed, a recent Harvard University study recommended significant changes in the university’s undergraduate curriculum to reflect the fact that “today’s world requires a greater emphasis on internationalization. As the ‘Red Book’ of the 1940s sought to outline how Harvard students should be educated as citizens of a free society, we must aim to prepare students to live as citizens of a global society.” [2] Similarly, the curriculum of the American high school must change if youths are to succeed in an interconnected world, and nowhere is such change more critical than in urban areas, where students face the highest risk of marginalization. In the words of a teacher-recruitment flier from the Henry Street Schooll for International Studies — one of the new, small secondary schools that opened this fall — “If it’s good enough for Harvard, it’s good enough for middle and high students on the Lower East Side!”

This article was originally publishe in Phi Delta Kappan (November 2004). Reprinted with Permission.

Author: Anthony Jackson, CEO, Asia Society International Studies Schools Network.


1 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher 2002, cited in National Research Council Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, Engaging Schools: Fostering High School Students’ Motivation to Learn (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2004), 49.

2 Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences, A Report on the Harvard College Curricular Review, April 2004, 8. [see full report]