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A Global School for a Global Age

As some schools open next week for a new school year, I want to feature an important voice in our field: Yvonne Chan, educator extraordinaire, and what she sees as the future of education for all students. Yvonne is principal of the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center, which includes Vaughn International Studies Academy (VISA), a member of Asia Society's International Studies Schools Network in Pacoima, California. You know the credit card slogan, "Life takes Visa." Yvonne gives that slogan a whole new meaning. Read on.

by Yvonne Chan

Today, more than ever, America's future and prosperity is linked to the rest of the world. U.S. exports account for a quarter of our economic growth, while international tourism has doubled in the past twenty years, with visitors spending more than $100 billion annually. In 2008, the U.S. Patent & Trademark office for the first time issued more patents to foreigners than Americans. And we now owe more than $1 trillion to China.

The trouble is you wouldn't know this by visiting most public schools.

Throughout our country, world languages usually aren't required until high school, world cultures are given little attention and most students learn more about ancient Egypt than the recent Arab Spring.

This becomes a problem when you stop to consider the extent to which events in other nations will affect their lives. We know that with the right preparation, many of today's youth will work for companies that operate and compete in a global marketplace; some may even have opportunities to work overseas themselves. We also recognize that many would be enriched and better prepared to participate in our democracy by learning more about the diverse cultures found in their own communities.

At the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in Pacoima, a low-income area of Los Angeles, California, we began thinking seriously about all of these issues six years ago. Since then, we have globalized the curriculum for the K-12 students at our five schools. The result is that the 2,700 students from our low-income, mostly Hispanic community have recently become some of the nation's most globally-savvy young people.

Visitors to our schools are often surprised to see our first-grade students learning Mandarin songs or hear the experiences shared by our high-schoolers who have visited and studied in various cities in China. After all, many of our kids still need extra help learning English, while most haven't traveled outside of California.

Indeed, insularity might have come naturally to our schools' community. The local population is strikingly homogenous; more than 90 percent of our students' families are Hispanic; a minority are African Americans and Asians; and not a single white student is enrolled in any of our campuses.

Back in 2006, however, the majority of our community came to an important realization: that our students—whose average household income is less than $20,000 and where only one-third of the adults in our community have graduated high school—will likely need to work harder than most for a place in an increasingly global economy. That's when we decided to give them an early, generous amount of exposure to the rest of the world, with a goal of equipping them to take best advantage of emerging economic opportunities.

Today, our preschoolers, kindergarteners and first-graders dance and sing songs in Spanish and Chinese once a week. In second grade, we are increasing the dose of cross-cultural content—including classes in Chinese calligraphy, cooking and theater—to once a day. When the kids get to high school, they're required to take three years of Mandarin, with a fourth year optional.

Besides all this, our students get frequent opportunities to meet Chinese students and teachers, who visit our campuses several times a year on an exchange program. Each year, about 200 Chinese students come to Vaughn during winter and summer, living with our teachers and making friends with their American classmates. Last year, in collaboration with California State University at Northridge, we began a training program for Chinese principals, who reside at our school for three months at a time. Beginning this year, every six months, we'll be sending groups of two dozen high school students to visit our six sister-city schools in major Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou. The trips are being paid for by Chinese host families and schools that have sent students on visits to our schools in Pacoima.

Not all of our students' parents were on board when we began this effort. Some protested that their kids hadn't even seen Santa Monica Beach, only 25 miles away, and barely knew any kids beyond Pacoima. What was the point of introducing them to the Chinese?

By then, however, our students had already shown how capable they were of reaching beyond expectations.

In 1993, Vaughn became the first U.S. public school to convert to charter status. With smaller classes, more teacher accountability and community involvement, our students have blossomed, nearly doubling their average scores on statewide performance tests since those early years. One result of our academic progress and our new globalization initiative is that last year, eight of our high school graduates were accepted by the University of California campuses at Los Angeles and Berkeley, with scholarships. The public and private scholarship donors specifically cited the students' international competency, including mastery of two world languages—Spanish and Chinese—in making their awards. What's more, four of our graduates recently began job internship programs overseas.

Jessica Joya is one of the students who is now attending UCLA. She's a first-generation American, her parents having emigrated from Mexico. She credits her Chinese language capacity as a major reason why she was accepted to the university, and says she intends to take international business classes, with a view toward working in China in the future.

Our project isn't all about college admissions and jobs, of course. By helping our students become more sophisticated about other cultures, we increase the chance that they'll grow up to be citizens ready to engage with other nations, choosing collaboration over conflict. Today's children, like those at my school, will have a significant part to play as voters and community leaders. Fortunately, the Chinese schools with which we have engaged have shared our keen interest in reaching beyond our borders. We've received financial support from Chinese private and public donors, while Chinese schools have sent hundreds of teachers, principals, and students to our campuses over the last five years. Principals at our sister schools tell me they talk a lot about America's brand of freedom and entrepreneurship back home, but that this is their chance to experience it.

I myself learned the value of crossing borders—literally—at 17, when I emigrated, alone, from Hong Kong. My hope today is that by investing in globalized education for students all over the world, we can reinvigorate our own American dream—and make it a shared dream for the planet.

Yvonne Chan is principal of the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in Pacoima, California. She served two terms on the California Board of Education, from 2005 to 2012.

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