Program Spotlight: Global Village Academy in Aurora, Colorado

Administrators starting a Chinese language program have found the same thing to be true: there is a shortage of the most basic resources needed to begin a program. Even the addition of Chinese to an already established foreign language program comes with a unique collection of problems. Finding teachers, curriculum resources, and standards for measuring proficiency are only a few of the unique problems to be solved. The added stress of preparing American students to compete in the global workforce has only served to heighten the climate of uncertainty that surrounds the field of Chinese language education. Administrators across the country are under great pressure to develop high quality Chinese programs, fast.

Regardless of the shortage of resources for new Chinese programs, a number of schools are fearlessly breaking new ground. Global Village Academy (GVA) is among the most innovative of this group. GVA, an international school, is the only public charter school in the country that combines the International Baccalaureate Organization Program (IB) with language immersion in three world languages: French, Mandarin Chinese, and Spanish.

Like many bilingual programs, the movement to establish GVA was led by a core group of committed parents who wanted to improve the selection and quality of international and bilingual education within their school district. It opened in the fall of 2007 with 250 (K-5) students and will add one grade a year to create a middle school. As a K-8 school, GVA will serve a diverse group of 675 students by fall 2011. The program features a full to partial immersion system, with 100% immersion in Kindergarten, 80%-20% immersion from the first to second grades, and 50%-50% from third grade to eighth grade.

Christina Burton, Principal at GVA, believes that the IB’s structured inquiry-based education is inherently compatible with the content-based nature of immersion education. The IB uses six theme-based units a year to integrate subject areas. These units are then balanced with focused instruction in core subjects and specials taught in English and the world languages. Cross-curricular strategies are used to reinforce key skills. Because the IB is so abstract and inquiry-based, there is some belief that it is incompatible with immersion, which is content-based. Ms. Burton argues that this is not the case. “Inquiry-based immersion programs are at an advantage because they pay very close attention to the language people use to do different types of reasoning.”

This unique model has created a struggle in terms of curriculum development for GVA. The first part of development is mapping the language curriculum in the traditional sense, with a scope and sequence, then expanding to include functions, tasks, and vocabulary. The second layer of development is molding the curriculum to be compatible with the IB template, which can be rather abstract. “We cannot look to any other program for help, or base our curriculum on a preexisting model because the model is so leading edge,” said Ms. Burton.

For Ms. Burton, the prospect of developing a Chinese program was intimidating at first. “My background is in charter school programs, I am not an immersion expert, and I had no experience with Chinese. What I learned was that good language instruction is just plain good instruction, in English or any other language.” Using visual aides, constructing a lesson scaffolded carefully from the concrete to the abstract, and featuring an interactive element are hallmarks of a successful lesson. “If I can go into a Chinese classroom, I can understand what is going on, and the kids are engaged, then I know the teacher is giving a great lesson, regardless of my language background.”

Navigating cultural differences with staff has also proven to be a challenge. “There is a real cultural shift for Chinese teachers teaching in America, and we have to explicitly discuss these issues.” Some specific matters demonstrate a fundamental difference between American and Chinese cultures. A main obstacle has been teachers’ reluctance to report classroom management issues because they feel it reflects poorly on their teaching skills. Another hurdle was explaining why teachers should not create public rankings of top students; Americans do not value hierarchy in the same way. Ms. Burton feels that the best tactic is to remain conscious of these key differences, and be vigilant about promoting an atmosphere of transparency. “It is essential to work with those teachers in a way that really supports them, so that they feel valued as teachers, and so that I get the information I need to stop a problem in a timely fashion.”

At GVA, professional development has become a high priority. “When you think about professional development, you really need to budget more dollars, you need to think nationally and internationally, because local resources are usually not adequate, and the role of consultants cannot be underestimated,” is Ms. Burton’s advice. “Networking has also been key. We need connections to create this model, and we cannot do it in isolation.”

Ms. Burton will be co-presenting “Charter Schools and Language Immersion: Opportunities and Challenges” at the Chinese Education Conference 2009 with Betsey Lueth, Principal at Yinghua Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Please click here to visit Global Village Academy’s website.