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Feature                                                      Pages 33-35

 

Chinese Connections  

Why a small school district in southeastern Michigan has built Chinese language and cultural programs for its own students as well as foreign visitors

BY WILLIAM C. SKILLING 

When L. Brooks Patterson, the executive of Oakland County, Mich., publicly called for the county to become the first in America to teach Mandarin Chinese in every public school district, the Oxford Community Schools responded immediately.

Over the past four years, our district of 5,030 students in southeastern Michigan has elevated the teaching and learning of this language to a completely new level. To quote the county executive on one of his recent visits to Oxford, “I don’t think these students yet realize what an incredible gift they’ve been given.”

Oakland County has made a concerted effort to diversify its economic base and attract more international businesses. Chinese businesses in the county, which is located about 35 miles from downtown Detroit, today total 57, a number that grows annually. Furthermore, China is Michigan’s third-largest trading partner. So when we look locally, we can see the tremendous need to have students graduate from Oxford High School fluent in Mandarin Chinese.

William Skilling
Superintendent William Skilling with students at Haichang Middle School in the Xiamen provience of China during a December 2010 visit, one of 14 trips he's made in setting up exchange programs

Learning the Chinese language, culture and history gives our students in Oakland County a leg up on the competition and a better opportunity to succeed in the global market. Working from this logic and knowledge, our goal is to design a model Mandarin Chinese language and culture program in the Midwest.

It is our duty as educators to prepare these children for the global marketplace. The most successful graduates will possess high cultural IQs, fluency in at least two languages and the acquisition skills to learn a third or fourth world language on demand. China’s emergence as a world economic power made the decision fairly straightforward.

Authentic Delivery
The process began when I visited China in 2008 to learn more about the Chinese culture and its business and educational systems. My travels took me to Beijing, Chongqing and Shanghai, where I toured schools, universities and businesses, including Ford Motor Co. of China.

After seeing firsthand the ways in which America is falling behind, living off current assets versus creating a new and powerful vision for its future, I could not wait to get back to Oxford to start developing an authentic program that would help close the global achievement gaps and improve the quality of education in Oxford.

In fall 2008, we launched our Fifth Core™ world language and culture program, appropriately titled to denote the importance it carries in our curriculum. That is, we require world language study of all students for 11 years, starting in kindergarten, in which they receive daily instruction. We implemented the program at the elementary, middle and high school levels simultaneously.

As of June, more than 2,200 students were enrolled in our Mandarin Chinese language and culture program. The number will grow by about 200 per year for the next four to five years.

We decided at the onset to place a high priority on providing an authentic Mandarin Chinese program. That means we do not want our students learning an accent nor do we want them to learn about Chinese culture through a Western lens. As such, Oxford employs native speakers of Mandarin Chinese who are bilingual/bicultural educators.

Over the last four years, we have hired 14 full-time Mandarin Chinese language teachers from China. Some teach their native language while others reinforce their language and culture in core and elective classes. In addition, we collaborate with the Confucius Institute at Michigan State University to run teacher internship exchanges between Michigan and China.

When Chinese educators and dignitaries visit our schools, they are amazed at how our young children are able to speak Mandarin Chinese without an accent. This can be credited to our insistence on hiring native Mandarin Chinese language teachers and providing an authentic experience.

Overseas Exchanges
To build support and understanding of our program among staff, board members, administrators and community members, we send a tour group to China every year. As superintendent, I have travelled there 14 times myself in the past three years. In all, we have sent more than 70 teachers and administrators to China to visit schools. Our staff has forged many new friendships and participated in countless educational exchanges with each of our 11 sister schools (including three added just this summer), teaching and learning from each other to create greater understanding and awareness of both Chinese and American cultures.

In just a few years, Oxford’s family tree has grown to 16 premier schools across the globe, all rooted in educational excellence and international collaboration. Our sister schools in China share similar educational philosophies and offer invaluable support of our Mandarin Chinese language and culture program.

A supporting role of our program is played by the Asia Society, which named Oxford Community Schools one of only 100 districts nationwide to be accepted into its network of Model Confucius Classrooms. Oxford has the largest proficiency-based Mandarin Chinese program within the network, five times larger than the next-largest U.S.-based program. The Model Confucius Classroom offers assistance in promoting the teaching and learning of Mandarin Chinese language and culture in Oxford.

Our ultimate goal, which we are pursuing at this time, is approval to operate our own Confucius Institute, serving as a training site for Chinese teachers who want to teach Mandarin Chinese language and other core and elective subjects in U.S. schools, and to be a Chinese language and cultural learning center.

Exporting Education
In April 2011, Oxford signed a historic agreement with one of its sister schools, the Northeast Yucai School Group in Shenyang, China, creating a joint Chinese/American international high school. In so doing, the Oxford Community Schools became the first public school system nationwide with an international school in China.

The Northeast Yucai Oxford International High School provides both the Chinese national curriculum, as well as the Oxford High School curriculum to Chinese natives generally between 15 and 18 years old. Through curriculum mapping, our students are assured they will meet Michigan core standards, as well as those of the Chinese national curriculum. Students can complete their full high school experience in Fushun, China, or attend Oxford High School via the International Residence Academy in Oxford, Mich.

Whatever option they choose, the Chinese students will earn an American high school diploma from Oxford Community Schools. When the Northeast Yucai Oxford School opened its doors in September 2011, three of our school board members were by my side at the kickoff.

During the Chinese Spring Festival, we celebrate the Chinese New Year and Lantern Festival with Chinese students from our sister schools. Oxford annually hosts a Winter Camp for 45 to 50 Chinese students. The students observe American culture at its finest, taking in musicals and tourist attractions, attending Oxford High School classes and getting a personal feel for American lifestyles by staying with Oxford families. The students also tour local universities and take English language proficiency tests because many want to enroll in Oxford’s International Residence Academy.

During Winter Camp, Oxford students collaborate with Chinese students to perform a traditional Chinese New Year variety show — a wonderful example of international linkage through the universal languages of art and music.

The landmark school in Fushun is tuition-based, which helps Oxford build a new revenue stream as a feeder school to our International Residence Academy in Oxford. Another new initiative coming this fall is the unveiling of the Oxford -Virtual Academy in China. This school will operate year-round to support the teaching of English composition and literature, American history, and SAT preparation to students in China as well as in Oxford. Besides the obvious educational benefits to students, we expect this school will contribute to much-needed school district revenues.

Cultural Intelligence
Oxford High School and Oxford Elementary School are authorized International Baccalaureate World Schools, and every other Oxford school is a candidate for IB accreditation. We anticipate full implementation and accreditation districtwide by fall 2013. As I am fond of saying in my communications to staff, “Never has a school district asked more of its teachers and administrators in such a short window of time, and yet, never has there been a teaching and administrative staff that has risen to the occasion so quickly and so well.”

IB authorization is an expensive undertaking, in terms of both time and financial resources. However, our staff knows that if IB authorization is good for one school, then it is good for all schools, so we persevere.

We started the process to have all our schools IB authorized in 2009. This past spring, two of our 10 schools received their official designation, so we will graduate our first IB diploma holders in spring 2014.

We believe the IB program helps to address the global achievement gaps that exist in our schools today — that is, the difference between what is predominantly tested on standardized exams today and the critical, analytical and creative thinking skills and knowledge needed to thrive in the global market.

Our students must understand the interdependence among nations in a global economy. They need to be fluent in multiple cultures and in at least one world language. They need to learn to problem solve across multiple disciplines, in unpredictable situations, in areas in which they are unfamiliar in order to create and invent. The IB program lends itself to teaching the global knowledge, skills and problem-solving capabilities that are not taught in a traditional standards-based curriculum.

Once all buildings become authorized as IB World Schools, we will work toward the next level of learning — teaching students to create second-order change and being proficient at asking third-order questions. Until students learn how to ask the right questions, they will not be proficient in creating their own best work and having the ability to create and invent.

Expansive Plans
How did we get to this point, as a pacesetter in our global education connections?

Relationships are foremost — internal, local, national and international. Once you have a clearly defined, powerful vision, along with the trust and motivation of a committed school district community, then you begin to network and look for partners to help you achieve your vision.

Oxford is fortunate to have the guidance and support of a whole host of businesses, educators and government officials. Like any good team, we know that it is the whole, not one part, that captures the prize. The real genius lies in the execution of the plan, not in creating the vision.

We also are not satisfied with the status quo. We are about to open a second American school in Chongqing, China, in 2013. It will be an American international high school whose primary curriculum and instructional practices will be American.

We also are working with Chinese investors to build a Chinese hotel and cultural center here in Oxford. Hotel guests will be treated to a totally Asian experience, including authentic Chinese food, entertainment, tea ceremonies, architecture and landscaping. The project includes a convention center, which will host educational and business conferences focused on global education and global entrepreneurship.

There are no limits to where the future may lead us as Oxford strives, as our registered trademark puts it, “to become a model global school, where the globe is our campus.”

William Skilling is superintendent of the Oxford Community Schools in Oxford, Mich. E-mail: William.Skilling@oxfordschools.org

 

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