Cumberland, Maryland – In this quiet mountain town in western Maryland, a classroom of first-graders at West Side Elementary School sings a cheerful song in Mandarin and then seamlessly transitions into a lesson on subtraction—also taught entirely in Chinese.
West Side, in rural Allegany County, is one of about 19 schools throughout Maryland that are part of the State’s innovative World Languages Pipeline program, which helps elementary-school students gain vital skills and knowledge in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), as well as a solid foundation in key foreign languages. Although the students are only in elementary school, the lessons represent an early start on preparing them for success in college and careers later on.
The program was spurred by the Federal Race to the Top program, which encouraged States to come up with innovative ways to prepare more students for success after high school as a way to boost the nation’s economic competitiveness. In its application for the Race to the Top grant, State officials made the case that “Maryland’s competitive edge in an increasingly flat world depends on the preparation of graduates who are highly skilled in STEM.”
The Race to the Top grant gave the State a chance to convene stakeholders who have collaborated to plan how best to combine STEM and foreign language instruction. It also allowed the State to work with STEM teachers on curricula that could be translated into Chinese, Arabic and Spanish. Those materials help the foreign language teachers deliver lessons on topics such as the diversity of life in the rainforest, the science of sound and the three states of matter.
“It makes the content more vivid, and students learn to think about the topic in another way through another language,” said Maryland Chief Academic Officer Jack Smith.
Jennifer Hernandez, district coordinator of world and classical languages for Anne Arundel County Public Schools, said an elementary school in her district could not have offered instruction in Arabic without the Race to the Top grant. She praised the State for collaborating with educators to ensure the STEM-related instructional materials met the needs of classroom teachers. “I just don’t know how we would have done it,” she said.
At West Side, mathematics and science are taught in Chinese. Initially, some parents and others in this rural community were skeptical. But West Side leaders worked hard to explain the program and show parents what their children are learning. The school uses an electronic portfolio program to allow parents to see assignments, monitor progress and view videotapes of the students working in and speaking Chinese. Now, support for the program is widespread.
Mindy Thoele, mother of a first grader at West Side, said the children are learning a foreign language without missing out on any of the basics. “Think of it this way,” she said. “All the kids get cake, but our kids get cake with icing, and who doesn’t want icing?”
Even a non-Mandarin speaker can see that children are learning at a high level in Mandy Tang’s first-grade class at West Side. After a lesson in subtraction, the children write and illustrate their own mathematics word problems, many choosing to do so in Chinese. One serious-looking girl in glasses with her hair tied back in a bright green headband hardly looked up when a visitor peered over her shoulder to look at the intricate subtraction story she was working on.
“She’s busy,” Ms. Tang said with a smile. “She really gets into writing the Chinese characters.”
Opening the Door to the World
Cumberland is an old mining and railroad town still feeling the effects of the recession and the hard times that came before it. Three-fourths of West Side’s students are considered low income. But parents here say they believe their kids will be better prepared for the global economy if they receive a rigorous education in STEM subjects and a foreign language.
“I think we’ve just opened doors for them that would never have been opened,” said Laura Miller, who has a first-grader in Ms. Tang’s class and also is the school’s media specialist.
Tang, a native of China, brought a culture of high expectations, a key goal of the Race to the Top program, to the school, said Molly Stewart, the principal of West Side. “Her minimum standard is really high,” Stewart said of Tang, who received a Master’s of Education degree from nearby Frostburg State. Other teachers have taken notice. “They say, ‘If students can do that in your class, then they can do that in mine.’”
Sustaining the Program
Although the Race to the Top grant that helped get the program this far is ending next spring, school leaders and the school board will use local resources to make sure it continues to grow.
“Our vision for this program definitely sprung out of the Race to the Top grant being available,” Stewart said. As she stood on the doorstep of the old brick school building, she added reflectively that this vision has become a reality. And she said no one here will let that slip away.
- Take time to plan before implementation. West Side spent two years developing and planning the program before launching it.
- Involve parents and the broader community. West Side invited families to Chinese New Year celebrations and helped organized artist exchanges between the Cumberland region and China.
- Look for resources everywhere. The Race to the Top grant was the seed that got the program going, but other grant programs and institutions, such as Frostburg State University, are helping it flourish and make it sustainable. Frostburg State attracts students from China and the university has helped West Side recruit teachers for the program.
- Set high expectations. Tasks that look hard to adults (such as learning Mandarin) are sometimes easier for children.
- Use tools such as the e-portfolio program at West Side to keep parents and others aware of students’ progress. Seeing is believing.
A module from Maryland Public Schools on learning the water cycle in Chinese.