Five schools that are breaking the borders.

When seventh graders at the Washington International School learn about water pollution, they study the nearby Potomac River. Then they link by video teleconferencing to students in Bangkok, Thailand, who are studying the Chao Phraya River. “Just seeing the kids live on the screen is very exciting for them,” says Kusam Wagle, a seventh-grade science teacher at the Washington, D.C., school.

The American and Thai students compare their findings, discovering common environmental concerns with their classmates halfway around the world.

“The fact that they discussed this will remain in their minds,” says Wagle. “When they are older, they will remember it more than something out of a textbook. We hope it is something that will spark their vision for our planet.”

Many schools are looking for new ways to give students an international perspective as early as possible. Teachers are adding lessons on global cultures and developing whole schools dedicated to foreign-language immersion.

“The world is deeply connected. Our future lies in the success of international trade,” says Vivien Stewart, vice president for education for the Asia Society. “There is a general sense that in a global economy students cannot afford to grow up ignorant of other countries.”

Pressure to add global curricula is coming from parents who want their children to learn a second language. The increasing racial and cultural diversity of our communities—from small towns to big cities—further fuels the trend, notes Stewart.
So what are the cornerstones of a solid international education program? Instructor looked closely at five schools recognized by the Prizes for Excellence in International Education sponsored by the Asia Society and the Goldman Sachs Foundation. These schools offer students a wide range of programs that provide students with a comprehensive global curricula.

Teachers interested in starting an international education program can learn from these excellent models. Many of the prizewinning programs started with just one leader, or a couple of teachers with an idea, says Stewart.

It’s Not a Small World After All

Integrating an international perspective into a school’s curriculum means going beyond food, festivals, and fun, says Stewart. The five schools we recognized provide a menu of in-depth options.

Most of the students at Sunset Elementary in Miami, Florida, are enrolled in an international magnet program. They learn Spanish, French, or German within the context of a global education. Each grading period focuses on one of four essential aspects of global citizenship: exploring civic responsibilities, gaining cultural awareness, learning about the environment, and understanding the global economy. Lessons revolving around these issues are posted throughout the school and talked about in morning announcements, says Tere Pujol-Burns, a lead teacher at Sunset.

At John Stanford International School (JSIS) for grades K–5 in Seattle, teachers integrate global curricula into conventional units, says Karen Kodama, the founding principal of the school, who is now the international education administrator for Seattle public schools. In language arts, kids read literature from around the world. In science, they study global weather patterns and erosion issues in other countries. In math, teachers explain the Japanese way of learning multiplication tables and the Kenyan way of counting numbers.

Each week at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School in Chicago, students choose two 80-minute world-learning seminars from about 60 choices. Sam Dyson, a physics teacher, offers a seminar in Zulu language and culture. “Students really enjoy learning the language because it is so different” with its unique clicking sounds, he says. With a new language comes new concepts. The word ubuntu, for example, is a Zulu idea that each person achieves humanity by connecting to other humans. To deprive others is to deprive ourselves. It’s a “uniquely powerful” ideal, says Dyson.

Students at Walter Payton also choose a second language: Chinese, Japanese, Latin, Spanish, or French. For the next school year, Arabic may be added. A sister school and an exchange program for every language help students deepen their learning.

English Only Is Not OK

While the U.S. trails other industrialized countries in second-language teaching, immersion language programs are gaining popularity. These prize schools focus on early language acquisition. Starting in kindergarten, students in Seattle’s JSIS are immersed in Japanese or Spanish for half of the day. Math, science, culture, and literacy are taught in the second language, with other subjects taught in English in the second portion of the day.

The earlier students start a foreign language, the easier they are to teach. Young children aren’t as self-conscious when they start learning a second language, says Hiromi Pingry, a second- and third-grade teacher at John Stanford. “They don’t think it’s hard or easy—they just start,” she says. It is demanding to learn a foreign language, especially when students are studying vocabulary in a second language that they don’t even know in English. Yet, young students do it and don’t resist as much as older students.

Seeing Other Cultures Firsthand

­Technology and travel allow students to form bonds with non-Americans, too. At Oregon’s Eugene International High School, a teacher-run public school that serves 1,300 students on three campuses, students in Caleb Kostechka’s ninth- and 10th-grade literature classes have pen pals from around the world. The pals communicate using a video camera and Skype software. When Kostechka held his initial video conference with South African students, he says, “At first kids can feel awkward. But once they start asking questions about being a teenager, all the walls go down.”

In 2006, Dyson led a group of Walter Payton students on a two-week trip to South Africa to meet their pen pals. It wasn’t a typical tourist trip—they stayed with families in the township. For the Chicago students who had never been on a plane, the experience was life-changing. “Broadening a student’s world helps shrink it as well,” says Dyson. The isolation that teens may feel “can be broken by an encounter with other students who are more like them than different,” he says.

The Walter Payton students also raised money to bring the students from South Africa to Chicago, completing the exchange. The South Africans stayed in the students’ homes. “I hope the students will take from this experience some deeper sense of the value of other and the idea of ubuntu—that they would leave their comfort zone for the needs of others,” says Dyson.

Student exchange programs solidify students’ understanding of both foreign languages and cultures. Eugene IHS students may study in Germany, Holland, or India. One year, Eugene students held a silent auction to raise money for their sister school in Bangalore, India, says lead teacher Courtney Leonard.

“I think my students get how everything is interconnected,” says Kostechka. “They appreciate Eugene and our community as an amazing place, but they don’t have their lens focused on this community alone. They see the global connection to everything.”

At Walter Payton, school trips to Paris and Morocco allow kids to use their four years of language study in a real-life setting. Abby Imrem, a French and Spanish teacher, says these trips inspire deeper learning. “They come back to a classroom even more energized to learn,” she says. And by traveling together, students bond and form a deeper connection with their teachers and school.

Experts Are Closer Than You Think

Schools with strong international education programs know how to tap into the expertise of their community. Businesses, universities, nonprofits and other organizations, and even parents have a wealth of resources they are often willing to share with students.

Walter Payton’s principal, Ellen Estrada, gets regular e-mails from an Illinois visitors’ center alerting her when a visitor from abroad is available to speak at her school. Previous speakers have included a journalist from China talking about press freedom, a lawyer from Russia explaining property rights, and activists from the Middle East discussing women-owned businesses.

The Seattle business community has been very supportive of JSIS. Each year, the school’s international business breakfast attracts big names, and last year it raised about $100,000. The school’s international business advisory board meets quarterly, helps promote JSIS, and spearheads its fund-raising.

Teachers Need Global Ed, Too
Most teachers lack training in global education. They need to play catch-up, says Stewart of the Asia Society. These prizewinning schools provide teachers with professional development at local universities and travel opportunities to provide them with this training.

Walter Payton opened the Confucius Institute, a center for learning about Chinese language and culture, in 2006. Teachers from all over the city can apply for training and access the institute’s resources, which include 10,000 texts for use in the classroom and Chinese-language software.

“I am constantly learning,” says Kostechka of Eugene IHS. When he starts a new unit or picks a book for his class, he researches the corresponding culture and art. At the end of the unit, Kosetechka allows students to write a paper or express what they learned through art.

Professional development at JSIS goes beyond obtaining new knowledge. Teachers are encouraged to share what they learn and coach others, says Kodama. For instance, when teachers learned a new guided language-acquisition design, they broke a subsequent staff meeting into small groups and discussed how the strategy applied to the different subjects.

These exemplary schools showcase great international education programs. But more still needs to be done to bring Americans into the global community, says Charles Kolb, president of the Committee for Economic Development, a nonprofit organization of business and education leaders in Washington, D.C. “International education is a question of both economic and national security. We don’t have the same orientation to other countries and cultures that you find in Europe. We are isolated and insular,” says Kolb. “And we have to go the extra mile to address that.”

But if your school does not have an international program, you can still go global. All it takes is an innovative teacher and a few good ideas. You can make a big impact just by adding one unit. If you start small—maybe by launching a pen pal program—and enlist the support of parents, you can build upon your success.