Professional Learning

A Fairy Tale in the Making: One Woman’s Quest to Connect Children of the World

April 19, 2007

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.

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  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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