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Good Morning, China

From Algeria to Uruguay, schools are waking up to international partnerships.
See how these low-cost programs are yielding big results

August 2009

Preschoolers in Michigan are learning to speak Mandarin in language-immersion classes run by native Chinese teachers. American students and teachers are sharing their culture online with their counterparts in Algeria. And a Canadian school district is swapping ideas about its laptop program with a district in Uruguay while pursuing similar arrangements with schools in Brazil, Paraguay, Peru, and South Africa.

They’re all examples of successful international partnerships—relatively low-cost, high-value programs pursued by forward-thinking superintendents and administrators here and abroad. Such partnerships have given districts in both countries invaluable knowledge and have exposed students to cultures and languages outside their own borders. (In fact, they may even help students learn faster—in Michigan’s Chinese-language classes, for example, administrators have seen students’ English reading comprehension improve.) One thing’s for sure: In a rapidly globalizing society, an international partnership is a strategic option that no district should ignore.

The Power of the Laptop
One school district owes much of the success of it laptop program to its international connections. Ronald Canuel, director of the Eastern Townships School Board in Magog, Quebec, is proud of the program in which students have their own computers. “The benefits have been immeasurable. We’re the fastest-progressing school board, in terms of academic results, in the province of Quebec,” says Canuel. “Our dropout rates are going down, our literacy and attendance scores have gone up. We’re seeing all the benefits, and, on top of that, our kids are getting the preparation they need for the 21st century. It truly falls into the category of a no-brainer.”

His district’s classes, adds Canuel, have become more project-based, and more collegial. “When you come into our classrooms, the ergonomics have changed,” he says. “Desks aren’t in rows anymore—students sits in groups or in pairs. It facilitates interaction, dialogue, and exchange.”

But these benefits might not have been seen without the connections the Eastern Townships School Board has with international programs. Canuel has been eager to share his experiences with other schools around the world and see what he can learn from them. Last September, he gave five Uruguayan educators and Uruguay’s ambassador to Canada a tour of six schools to show how his district’s laptop program operates. The year before, Canuel had visited Uruguay to meet with educators and government officials, partly to see how the country’s schools were succeeding with low-cost computers. Canuel, a firm believer in reaching out to other countries as technology creates a much more global society, found the exchange invaluable.


Connecting With Uruguay
“The world is getting flatter, and I think it behooves school boards to establish relationships with other countries and other societies,” Canuel says. “Technology certainly helps facilitate that interaction.” Uruguay is part of the international One Laptop per Child program and is in the process of providing low-cost XO laptops to its 300,000-plus elementary school students. One Laptop per Child, founded by MIT veteran Nicholas Negroponte, aims to provide low-cost machines to the world’s poorest children. It’s a whole new world for Uruguayan educators, so their interest in the Eastern Townships School Board’s successful laptop program is understandable. “They were also interested in seeing the impact on families and communities, how that evolved, and how that worked,” says Canuel. But how does Canuel’s district benefit from this?

In part, it’s about the bottom line, and keeping tabs on lower-cost laptop programs worldwide. “We’re looking at what the alternatives are, and if the XO is a viable alternative,” says Canuel. “If we see that there’s a benefit that we can replicate using the XO machines instead of the Apple machines, then guess what? That becomes a terrific option, not only for ourselves but for every school board on the continent.”

Canuel is also interested in laptop programs developing in Peru and Brazil, and he has met with officials from Colombia, Paraguay, and South Africa with an aim to share tech knowledge. His district is part of a consortium of 40 Quebec school districts, called International Education, which help subsidize international projects. So far, however, costs have been minimal.

Bridge Building to Algeria
the distance between nevada and Algeria is about 5,300 miles, but for students in 35 Algerian schools and 22 U.S. classrooms (including 14 schools in Michigan and Nevada), the miles are neglible. Students share aspects of their lives, from school to family to culture, through the four-year-old U.S.-Algeria school partnership program known as e3Link. This free program is run through a grant from the U.S. State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative.

Here’s how it works: Each school creates a community profile, showcasing various aspects of students’ lives—school, family life, physical environment, and cultural traditions. The students create multimedia profiles incorporating photos, sound files, and videos to detail snapshots of life in each community that can be viewed online by their peers. Teachers and students in both countries then discuss the profiles, and the other country’s culture, in class.

The cultural-exchange aspect is valuable for both American and Algerian students, but for the Algerian schools—some of which are located in rural areas of the country—the technological training is just as vital.

“Technology skills vary widely from teacher to teacher in Algeria,” says Sarah Havekost, the Algeria field manager at Creative Associates International, which is administering the program in partnership with Michigan State University and the Algerian Ministry of National Education. “In many cases, the e3Link program provided the first opportunity for teachers to use technology in an educational setting. Several did not have e-mail accounts and had no exposure to tools like word processing, PowerPoint and the Internet.” A recent program evaluation showed that 88 percent of surveyed teachers in Algeria reported learning new technology skills through the program.

In an anonymous survey, teachers and students in both countries were asked their opinions on the partnership program, and the responses are revealing. The best part of the program, according to a group of U.S. students, was “being able to talk to students in Algeria and feeling like I understand their life.” An Algerian teacher was pleased with the way students reacted, saying, “There was a wonderful interaction within the group, and this project boosted the students’ motivation and autonomy.”
One U.S. teacher perhaps best summed up the cultural benefit the e3Link program provides: “I think the most basic benefit was to put a human face on a country that had been an abstraction for my students and myself.”

Chinese Immersion
At several schools in michigan and Tennessee, Chinese-born teachers are teaching their native language to kids of all ages, from preschoolers to high school students, thanks to a two-year-old program started by the Confucius Institute and the U.S.-China Center at Michigan State University.

Teacher candidates include native Chinese, or Chinese immigrants living in the United States, many of whom were trained as teachers in China. The institute also ensures that candidates have the ability to enroll in Michigan State University’s teacher
certification program.

Candidates go through a five-month training program in China, during which American and Chinese trainers cover many of the cultural differences between the two countries’ styles of teaching. “The biggest issue is classroom management and learning to deal with American students,” says Nancy Romig, a senior project director at the Confucius Institute. “In the Chinese culture, your teacher is ranked higher than your parents, and it’s a family disgrace if you are reprimanded at school.”

After the training program, candidates return to the U.S. and begin coursework at Michigan State University. “We’re building in a lot of safety nets, so these teachers can be very successful,” says Romig. Chinese teachers are asked for a three-year commitment. The current cost to contract a teacher through the program is about $40,000 per year. The institute pays the teacher’s salary and basic health insurance.

Romig oversees all the schools that are part of the project, but she is also the Chinese immersion specialist for Post Oak Elementary School in the Lansing (MI) School District, where she has seen students learn Chinese firsthand. “The capacity of these children to pick up the language, to comprehend, and to learn academics—language arts, math, science, social studies—is just amazing to watch. We have children who are in first grade who do their math all in Chinese and then translate it to English.”

The Chinese immersion program is so popular at Post Oak that students are coming in from other districts to participate. “When you have an inner-city, urban district that tends to lose children to top suburban school districts, and you’re pulling in these suburban [students], it says a lot,” says Romig.

Progress in Two Languages
marsha pando, superintendent of the Lamphere Schools in the Detroit suburb of Madison Heights, Michigan, and Jane Jurvis, principal of the district’s Lessenger Elementary School, are similarly amazed at the progress of 100 preschool and kindergarten students in the Chinese immersion program. In the year-old program, the students receive a half-day of traditional English-language preschool or kindergarten curricula. The rest of the day is devoted to Chinese language and culture.
Often, concepts will overlap, with fascinating results. Jurvis has seen preschoolers learn about even and odd numbers, a first-grade concept, in Chinese with ease. She also found students’ reading comprehension has improved in English since the Chinese program was introduced. “Parents want the program to continue because they’re excited about the progress that their children have made,” says Jurvis. “Not only in Chinese, but in English as well, because they’re being reinforced in a second language.”

Yingming Wu, a Chinese immersion teacher in the district, has also found the experience educational, but from a teaching standpoint. “The Chinese tend to be teacher-centered, with the teacher standing in front of the class the whole time, saying, ‘This is what you want to learn in this subject,’ ” she says. “In America, students are sitting on the carpet and are more involved in what the teacher is talking about. Students have more interest, and teachers are teaching according to the students’ interests.”

American students are learning Chinese, and they are learning it well. “People have commented that the children don’t speak Chinese with American] accents,” Pando says. But they are also being exposed to a foreign culture and improving their test scores in subjects other than Chinese. It is clear that international partnership programs have the potential to benefit school districts in multiple ways, from improving education to creating a space for mutual cultural understanding—two essential goals in an ever-shrinking world.

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