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A Long Island Expressway...to Global Competence

Districts are at the forefront of the education reform movement and are key to promoting the implementation of global competence. Today we look at Herricks Union Free School District on Long Island, in New York, where leaders and teachers have taken a holistic, grassroots approach to embrace the concept of an international education for all students.

When Superintendent John Bierwirth started leading the district in 2001, he took the pulse of the community and found a common desire to ensure students would graduate with the ability to apply their knowledge and understanding to complex, real–world problems, and the ability to communicate their findings. Using this mandate, district leadership set a goal for the district of graduating globally competent students.

Realizing that teachers were the key to making this goal a reality, the district began by giving them ample leeway to experiment with their curriculum. The district administration believes its role is to encourage teachers to think outside the box—and over the years, this has become integral to the culture: Teachers taking a chance are supported and are not micromanaged.

As a component of their contracts, teachers receive professional development to build their capacity to teach for global competence. This adds no extra costs for the district since it fulfills professional development hours required of all teachers. Superintendent Bierwirth will tell you that it is a matter of setting priorities. And the district teacher center makes a concerted effort to offer (non–mandated) courses on cultures and cultural awareness. All teachers are encouraged to apply for Fulbright and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) cultural study grants. If they receive a grant, the district ensures that they can go—even if it means covering the cost of a substitute.

If you wander the halls of a Herricks district school you will see interactive, engaging world language instruction happening, whether it be Italian, Spanish, French, or Mandarin. Learning languages has always been a priority in the district; students can take language courses beginning in 7th grade—much earlier than many schools across the country. However, in 1999, the district instituted a five–year foreign–language requirement, beginning with 6th grade students. Today, every 6th grader is enrolled in one of four languages, and they will study that language through 10th grade. More than one–third of all students continue to study their target language until graduation.

This focus on world languages took on a new dimension in the fall of 2010, when an elementary immersion program began. Team–taught by Spanish– and English–speaking teachers, kindergarten students learn for half of their day in Spanish and half in English. This immersion program will continue to expand: An additional year of bilingual instruction will be added every year until the program extends through grade 12, giving students a full pipeline to fluency. In a time of budget cuts, gaining such a program was seen as a major triumph.

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