Fayetteville, North Carolina, Students and Foreign Language Immersion

Paul Woolverton for The Fayetteville Observer, August 29, 2010:

At Cumberland County’s newest elementary school, the classroom rugs are adorned with world maps.

A first-grade teacher from New Zealand is decorating her room with koala and kangaroo pictures. Another teacher plans to use tai chi to blend math lessons with Asian culture.

And all 650 children at the west Fayetteville school will learn Mandarin Chinese.

New Century International Elementary is the latest example of Cumberland County’s push toward a more global education. Whereas their parents may have taken a couple of years of Spanish in high school, some children in Cumberland County today are fully immersed in foreign language by kindergarten.

The innovations put the school system at the forefront of such efforts nationwide, said Superintendent Frank Till Jr., who has made international education one of his top priorities.

The idea is to prepare children for the types of jobs they’ll get as adults. It’s particularly crucial in the hometown of Fort Bragg, whose soldiers are at the forefront of international affairs, Till said.

“Our kids, our children, when they graduate from here have to know there’s a bigger world out there than Cumberland County or the United States,” Till said. “And that they’re going to have to interact with kids from all over the world or compete with kids from all over the world.”

As a new school year begins Wednesday, children across the county are already learning lessons with a worldwide perspective. Some examples:

Three elementary schools immerse their students in Spanish. It’s the only language allowed in their math, science and some other classes. In place since 2007, the goal is to have the children fluent by fifth grade.

At Cross Creek Early College High School, which has operated on Fayetteville State University’s campus since 2005, students graduate with college credits. Some already have a year of college courses behind them before they get their diploma.

Next year, another early college high school may open. This one will focus on foreign languages and diplomacy – skills important to the Army Special Forces units based at Fort Bragg. The Army operates a language school and has discussed collaborating with the public schools on this project.

Cumberland County isn’t alone in its efforts. There are eight internationally focused schools and an early college high school in the Raleigh area, for example. Charlotte’s school system has several language immersion schools.

So far, much of Cumberland County’s efforts have been confined to about 10 of its 85 public schools. But Till – now in his second year as head of North Carolina’s fourth-largest school system – wants to make such programs available to all of the system’s 53,000 students.

“We have pieces of things, and the real thing is we’re trying to pull them together so we just don’t have … random acts of excellence, but that we have excellence everywhere,” he said.

For example, Till hopes to have seven more language immersion schools in the near future and to offer languages in addition to Spanish.

The changes in part are driven by Fort Bragg. The military base is home to about 10 percent of the Army’s active-duty troops who deploy throughout the world. And Fort Bragg is growing with BRAC. By September 2011, about 3,000 new, high-ranking military and civilian jobs will be on post. Some expect Fayetteville to become a hub for defense and homeland security companies that do business across the globe.

Till wants his students to graduate with skills needed to get those jobs.

Fayetteville already has international flavor, which surprised Till when he moved here last year. Cumberland County schools educate children from 36 foreign countries, Till said. Last year, a survey found that 48 foreign languages are spoken in homes of school-age children. The most common were Spanish, Korean, German, Vietnamese, Chinese and Arabic.

“It shows you how multicultural we are here,” Till said.

At New Century International Elementary School, teachers from China and Taiwan will teach Mandarin Chinese from kindergarten through fifth grade.

Yanling Ye used to teach high school English in China. Now she is preparing to teach Chinese nursery rhymes, children’s songs and simple phrases to kindergartners and first-graders at New Century.

“Learning Chinese is kind of a trend in the world,” Ye said.

China is North Carolina’s fastest-growing export market, according to the state Department of Commerce. It’s the world’s largest country in population and has the second-largest economy in value.

“I think it is a really good chance for them to learn more about China,” Ye said “And if they are really good at it, I think … they will have more chances than others who don’t speak Chinese” to find work and business opportunities in China.

New Century is the county’s second international school after Gray’s Creek Elementary. While New Century teaches Chinese, Gray’s Creek teaches Spanish.

At both schools, each grade level studies a different region of the world: North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Oceania. The schools have at least one teacher who has lived or taught in each region, said New Century Principal Felix Keyes.

New Zealand native Amy Wesley has decorated her first-grade classroom with pictures from her part of the world. She has stocked the cupboards with Australian crackers and Vegemite spread. The lessons she is preparing are about Australia and the island nations in the southwest Pacific Ocean.

Second-grade math teacher Annie McMullen will use a set of Singaporean counting chips and tai chi exercises to help her students learn arithmetic and Asian culture at the same time. Her husband made a paper sculpture of a Chinese dragon to watch over her classroom.

The theme seems to be popular among parents, including those who are military families. Some parents have sought out the international schools.

Gray’s Creek Elementary began its international focus last year. Janice Burton said her family moved into that district so her son, John, could attend.

As a military brat, Burton attended nine schools in 12 years and was exposed to people of all races and religions. “I think it’s made me a better-rounded person, and I want the same for him,” she said.

John, now a fifth-grader, struggled before he enrolled at Gray’s Creek, Burton said.

“He just hated school,” Burton said. “He didn’t want to go. He didn’t enjoy it. It wasn’t interesting to him. And from the first day, he was just captured there.”

John’s fourth-grade teachers incorporated information about Europe during their lessons, Burton said. For example, his math teacher had the students calculate the distances between European cities.

Wendy Cook and her Air Force husband recently bought a home in west Fayetteville so their 5-year-old son, Ross, could attend New Century.

Ross has already lived in Australia and Germany, Cook said, “so we feel he’s already multicultural, and we want to continue to nurture that in him.”

She thinks the Chinese lessons will help tune his brain to learn foreign languages and give him an advantage if he goes into business or becomes a pilot – which he wants to do when he grows up.

Lawrencia Pierce, whose husband is a soldier, thinks the language training at New Century will help her 7-year-old twins develop thinking and learning skills. She wants the boys to learn about other cultures.

“When they grow up, they will have a tolerance, if you will, or an acceptance of other cultures and traditions because they have been exposed to it at an early level,” Pierce said.

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