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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A Fairy Tale in the Making: One Woman's Quest to Connect Children of the World

Dr. Katie Klinger

STEM & Digital Equity Grantwriter & Education Technology Integration Expert

Once upon a time . . . sound familiar? Remind you of a fairy tale? And don't we learn valuable lessons from fairy tales? Of course! The story I am about to share with you is a real-life fairy tale about a Harvard-educated woman who wanted children to learn to speak to each other around the world.

She created a charter school for children K-3 to learn Mandarin and Spanish just miles away from the state capitol buildings in California. She even worked the miracle to bring in $1.3 million in funding to make this happen. But, as in any fairy tale, there is always an obstacle to overcome before the main characters win the prize. This story is no different.

Last year, Linda Ventriglia wrote two grants: one to establish a charter school in north Sacramento and the other to create a language academy for young children in a low-income neighborhood. The three most commonly spoken languages in the world are Mandarin, Spanish, and English.

Knowing that the success of every language program is based on sharing not only the words but also the culture in which the words exist, Ventriglia went to China to engage two universities as partners in this learning revolution. The excitement her partners from China felt about using technology to connect their classrooms with hers has inspired her to create a Mandarin curriculum modeled on her highly successful teacher kits designed to help children learn Spanish.

The plan is simple: Students in Sacramento will integrate Mandarin as part of their daily classroom activities, then teachers and students in Beijing and Shanghai will videoconference weekly with Ventriglia's students to learn grammar, pronunciation, and contextual meaning from each other. Due to the time zone advantage, parents will also be given the luxury to participate in the videoconferences after school as they learn Mandarin along with their children.

In the middle of this fairy tale, a formidable obstacle arose in the form of the school board of the North Sacramento School District. The fact that this dual-immersion charter school was tied to a specific school location was just the beginning of the dissent, which lasted for many months. Other considerations brought up to Ventriglia and her support team (of which I was one) included the charter school's budget, a lack of interest from some of the community's minority parents, the absence of support from the local teachers' union, and the district's hesitation to honor the matching-funds requirement for the awarded Mandarin grant.

Several school board meetings amounted to verbal challenges between supporters of the new charter school and its opponents. District lawyers lined up against the visionaries to deflate the excitement of creating this new learning environment despite the support team's efforts to demonstrate that educating young children to learn these languages will provide them with an advantage in their career paths.

Minority parents from the community played two roles: One set of parents supported the visionaries because they understood the gift this funding would give their children; the district invited others to protest that their children first needed to refine their English-language skills. The seesaw of this exchange during one meeting after another drained the visionaries and weakened their resolve?exactly the outcome their opponents hoped for.

During this time, three board members were replaced in an election. At the next meeting, the returning members decided that their new colleagues did not have enough of a handle on the situation to call for a vote in support of the new charter school. Again, the delays seemed orchestrated to flatten the visionaries. In fact, it had the same effect on several board members; at the next meeting, one of them simply said "Enough" and called for a vote. To the surprise and delight of the visionaries, the vote passed, making the charter school a reality.

It remains to be seen, however, whether they will live happily ever after.

Dr. Katie Klinger

STEM & Digital Equity Grantwriter & Education Technology Integration Expert
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Gabrielle Zois's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I love your story!! My daughter Anna goes to a Dual Immersion Program for Spanish and we already speak German at home, so Anna is on her 3rd language and she is only 7. I am amazed at how fast she is picking up Spanish and I think it would be great to have more dual immersion programs in our schools! In a time when our demographics are changing rapidlyall it is so important for all citizens to be culturally literate and to know a second language. A child's brain is capable of easy language acquisition and I hope our countries educators will realize the need for more global education!
Heather Souter's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Taanshi, What a great inspiration! I come from an indigenous community in northern Manitoba, Canada. Presently, I am a graduate student in linguistic anthropology and very interested in getting our most endangered Metis language Michif (spoken fluently by only about 200 elders across the Prairie provinces of Canada) into our local school. After reading your story, I am challenged to think bigger than I have! The most important thing is being able to demonstrate that learning an indigenous langauge will give children a significantly better chance at success in their schooling and life in general. Does anyone know of any bibliographies dealing with bilingualism/multilingualism and success in schooling and/or beyond? Kihchi-marsii! Thanks alot! Heather Souter
Jesse Blackburn Morrow's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Heather, See this report from a longitudinal study: W. Thomas and V. Collier. 2001. A National Study of School Effectiveness for Language Minority Students' Long-Term Academic Achievement Final Report: Project 1.1. Center for Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence. Also see digests from the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) on results of 2-way bilingual ed programs -- a 1999 digest is at http://www.cal.org/resources/digest/ed379915.html; there may be newer ones. Jon Reyhner's site might also have some references -- http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~jar/TIL.html The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon have a charter high school (Nixyaawii Community School) that requires students to study one of the Tribes' three heritage languages. While it's not a perfect comparison (as you can't compare Native students within the same school), you could contact Principal Annie Tester to see if drop-out rates, standardized test scores, or interest in college is demonstrably different for her students compared to Native students at other area high schools. Most folks involved with the Tribes' language program have suggested the classes have been good for culturally connecting the students with their elders. Good luck, Jesse Blackburn Morrow Northwest Indian Language Institute University of Oregon
Jing's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
It's a very toching story. I'm a colloge student from China Harbin. I major in English and have learned a little bit Japanese. I'd like to teach some students Chinese mandarin on the internet because I do like teaching and learning from what I'm doing. If you are interested, please feel free to contact me. mirror-tong@hotmail.com
Alex Vellanoweth's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
The "edurevolution" is amongst us and people thoughout the world will be listening very carefully. China, Mexico and the United States have more at stake than just trade, they have languages and cultures to share in Sacramento, CA. The new school in Sacramento, CA will address the technology needs as well as the languages required to succeed in the 21st century. Linda Ventriglia's vision is very much a reality. We need to have this model that is taking place spread throughout the nation. Just think, a nation of multiliteracy in a revolutionary mode. "EDUREVOLUTION" Thanks for the article Katie.
JoAnn T. Funk's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I live in the East Bay of San Francisco and am familiar with the California mindset about, "drop your culture, drop your language, and become an American now, or else". As an educator who started her career teaching migrant workers' children, I disagree wholeheartedly and wish you luck with this endeavor. I have heard a news story about it on TV here locally and it sounded positive. I believe ignorance of other cultures and their languages and values pushes the steam engine of ethnocentricity in this country. It is sad that we are not more embracing and open-minded in this country as to the merit of being a global community.
Miguel Navarrette's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
As a school board member I am constantly looking for ways to improve education. After two years on the school board, I am convinced we need an education revolution. Our district has a huge achievement gap for Latino and African American students. Brain reserach confirms the value of languages in promoting vocabulary learning which has the highest correlation with school success. I applaud the visionaries for their innovative concept. In my 30 years of education I know that money is not the answer. Leadership prevails and begins revolutions were money cannot. We need to join together to help visionaries make their visions a reality.
Junker Jörg's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is instructive to remember that the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm--from which we draw many of the fairy-tales we love today--were often violent, gruesome and ended with the death of a character in the story. Why is this important? Because we learn, that just as with the original folktales, parts of this "fairy-tale" have been left out to make the story more palatable.

Enter our Harvard-trained heroine who brings to the district a wonderful plan to educate children. The idea is truly a great one (and I am very sincere about this), but the initial proposal is incomplete and the board members, who are accountable for the educational programs and financial welfare of the district, ask for clarification, correction and completion. (For there must be both visionaries and 'accounting types' in the little kingdom (school district) far, far away...casting the "visionaries" as the only "good" characters and parents who spoke against the charter as simply 'invited by the district' is also more than a bit disingenuous and insulting to the parents who attended and participated, but then if we discredit them by making them shills of the district, we discredit their message as well...?que no?). The district commits the school site identified in the language school charter to another charter organization within the district and then to the language charter as well. It is unclear how this promise can be kept to both schools.

Enter the intrepid and oft unjustly maligned teacher's union. They are concerned that the proposed budget for the charter school pegs salaries for the charter teachers at less than the average salary being paid to teachers in the district--hardly what we would expect to pay teachers fluent in Chinese, a rare commodity indeed. This creates a class of teachers different from the rest in terms of salary. The work day is different as well. "Stipends" are proposed to ameliorate this problem. Stipends, however, do not contribute to the retirement salary level of the teachers. Are 'stipends' then a fair way to compensate the teachers? Our union protagonists are also concerned about the proposed outsourcing of food services which impacts the district's classified employees--many of whom live in the district. They are also concerned, gentle readers that the two administrators identified in the charter budget have a combined salary of nearly $200,000 per year -- more than the salaries of principals in the district who are responsible for six times the students and ten times the staff.

Lawyers from BOTH sides begin to advocate for their positions in the best traditions of their profession. Knights from a neighboring kingdom (board members from the district 'next door') come to admonish the leaders of the 'little kingdom'. Sadly, the loss of a loved one also delays the final submission of a completed proposal. An extension is granted by the board. Time passes. An election is held in the community. Three new members are elected to the board.

Enter the new board members whose experience we may charitably say, "varies", in both in managing an enterprise and in governing a school district. None of the new board members was a party to the previous discussions about the new charter school and understandably and quite reasonably need a bit of time to digest the information. Questions arise. Support is expressed. Concerns are voiced. Could the language school be housed at another site? Supporters bristle at the suggestion. Surely we could ask the politicos from the State Capitol to drive a few extra miles to see this showpiece. Answers become as elusive as La Llorno's children. Could the Department of Ed in Washington be consulted? Absolutely not. And why not? So the "emperor's new clothes" can continue to be hidden from his subjects? What of the costs? Few seem interested. Visionaries sometimes are disconnected from the realities of carrying out the vision--just as the apparatchik can lack the vision. As our story reaches its climax, a board majority approves the charter and leaves both schools at the same site.

So in the end, will it all work out? I hope it does for the sake of the children, but it will surely take more than 'magic beans'.

Parent's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was thrilled to learn about the program on Sacbee today. Can a child from a different school district attend?

Linda Ventriglia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Open enrollment will be held by the principal the first week in August if we get the building on Monday July 30th.

Thanks for your support.

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