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Global education in action: U.S. Department of State visits UCPS's immersion program

Union County Public Schools recently welcomed representatives from the U.S. Department of State to observe the impact of the Dual Language Immersion (DLI) programs on thousands of students through their partnership with Participate Learning. These programs, offering immersion in Spanish or Mandarin, signify a concerted effort by the district to embrace global education. 

From its inception in 2012, the partnership between UCPS and Participate Learning has steadily developed and expanded, demonstrating ongoing growth and collaboration. It was a significant visit because it was the first time the U.S. Department of State requested to conduct one. 

"We want to make sure the teachers and the programs are getting strong cultural exchange experiences. I understand that Participate Learning is one of the best in terms of making that happen, helping to ensure the health, safety and welfare of the teachers. We are here to see it," said Rebecca Pasini, deputy assistant secretary, private sector exchange, U.S. Department of State. 

At the heart of the success of these programs is the recruitment and placement of native-speaking exchange teachers by Participate Learning. These educators, referred to as ambassador teachers, bring not only language proficiency but also valuable cultural insights to the classroom, adding to the educational experience for students. Teachers involved in the program can remain in the country for up to three years, with the option to extend for an additional two years, pending approval from the U.S. Department of State. 

Superintendent Dr. Andrew Houlihan welcomed the visitors at Marvin Elementary and spoke briefly. He remarked that UCPS is a culture deeply rooted in the values of family, teamwork, support and respect. The tight-knit bond is why the community rallies around initiatives like the partnership with Participate Learning, offering support to ensure its success.

"We are proud of the program and belief in cultural exchange. Our teachers from other countries are valued just as much as anyone from the United States," said Superintendent Dr. Andrew Houlihan. "One of our goals is around equity and ensuring all our kids have access to the program. It is in more than 30 schools now. We committed early on that when you leave fifth grade, if you wanted the option to continue in middle in high school, we'd provide that opportunity."

David Young, CEO of Participate Learning, shared his family's history of valuing cultural exchange through travel and hosting exchange students, which sparked his passion for global learning. Inspired by his father's work establishing international exchange programs for professors, Young aimed to extend similar support to K-12 educators. Recognizing teachers' needs over 37 years, including obtaining social security numbers, health insurance, driver's licenses, and arranging living arrangements, the organization sought to streamline these processes, facilitating smoother transitions for educators.

"We want the students to have an amazing international experience that our teachers provide. We also want these teachers to have an amazing American experience they will eventually take home with them. They'll be our ambassadors," said Young. 

The guests, the superintendent, UCPS board of education members, other central staff leaders and representatives from Participate Learning, toured classrooms at Marvin Elementary and Porter Ridge Elementary. At Marvin Elementary, students were learning the elementary curriculum in Mandarin, while at Porter Ridge Elementary, students did the same in Spanish. Entering each classroom, you become immersed in a vibrant showcase of cultural heritage. Bulletin boards adorned with colorful displays highlighted cultural symbols and student work.

The languages may have differed, but the teaching methods used at both schools showed remarkable similarities. The instructors were interactive and animated, using multisensory strategies to engage students effectively.

Jinjing Chen's third-graders at Marvin were playing a vocabulary game similar to Simon Says, where she would say a word in Mandarin, and they would do the action. Sebastian Forero Rosania, a first-grade teacher at Porter Ridge Elementary, told his students to walk around until they heard a bell. When the bell rang, they were to find a partner and start a conversation using two Spanish phrases written on the board to discuss the math problems they were working on. 

These interactive approaches help reinforce the subject, speech and vocabulary while making learning enjoyable for the students, as evidenced by their laughter and smiles.

Students in Chen's class were also learning a traditional Chinese story about three monks she had learned in kindergarten. She tied it into her childhood and many of the traditions. 

"This car [power wheel] was for a role play we had last week for the Chinese New Year. We read a book about it. We had a dad wash the car and fix the car like the book. Parents donated it [the power wheel]. They had the real tool to communicate with each other," said Chen. "The parents get really excited and read even if they don't understand. The students practice the songs and poems at home, and the parents are like, 'Wow'."

Jessica Garner, UCPS director of college readiness, oversees the DLI program and the partnership. 

"Immersion is a different picture of how students learn another language. They are learning the typical elementary curriculum, but also learning Chinese or Spanish," said Garner. "It's important to note that our teachers use the same content standards as our traditional classes. We want our students to become bi-literate, bilingual and develop cross-cultural competencies without sacrificing grade-level academic achievement."