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Foreign languages, academic rigor help prepare Virginia students for global marketplace.

In Dan Fitzgerald's ideal world, every American student would begin learning a foreign language as early as kindergarten and by high school would be fluent and primed to learn another one.

"Look at our students from Ghana. Almost all of them speak English and two ... maybe five other languages. We have Bosnian students who already speak German and English and are interested in learning French," said Fitzgerald, chair of the foreign language department at West Potomac High School in Alexandria, Va.

An idea not far-fetched, Fitzgerald's utopia is starting to become a reality for many schools across the nation with the support of a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. In September, through its Foreign Language Assistance Program, the Department began awarding to states and school districts nationwide the first of 131 grants for fiscal year 2006 totaling more than $22 million. The funds are for teaching Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Russian and other languages Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings considers "essential not only for trade in the global economy, but also to our national security."

The program is part of President George W. Bush's National Security Language Initiative, for which the departments of Education, State and Defense along with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence have joined forces to increase the number of Americans learning critical foreign languages through new and expanded programs from kindergarten through college and into the workforce. The shortage of capacity in these critical languages is so severe, for instance, that less than half of the 1 percent of U.S. students taking a foreign language in grades K-12 study Chinese, although it is the most widely spoken language in the world.

To boost that rate, a $188,511 grant was awarded to Fairfax County Public Schools--of which West Potomac will be one of seven to benefit initially from the federal funds--to help more than 1,500 students learn Chinese and Arabic. Bolstered by partnerships with academia and the state, the grant will help to improve instruction in the primary grades and help secondary schools lacking these languages offer virtual courses.

Charged with a vital role in this effort is West Potomac's Chinese language teacher, Yunian Zhang. A native of Shanghai, China, who moved to the United States in 1990 following a career as a theater professor, Zhang has been teaching Chinese at the beginning to intermediate levels for the past eight years. This fall, in collaboration with the Virginia Department of Education, he began leading a virtual Chinese class for schools not only in the district but across the state, particularly for those that have been unable to find a qualified teacher or have too few students to justify hiring one. The class is one of a variety of college-level and foreign language courses available through the Virtual Advanced Placement School, the state's distance learning Web site. Launched as a level-one course--more advanced classes will be added later--it covers a total of 165 lessons enhanced through PowerPoint slides and five-minute training videos that Zhang prepares.

For the first year, enrollment in the pilot program has been limited to 28 students statewide. Zhang believes interest will grow as students increasingly realize both the prestigious and practical benefits of learning Chinese: "Eventually you want to have that language on your [application] if you want to go to a good university. ... Taking Chinese in high school shows you have challenged yourself and have the potential to learn any kind of language in the world. And if you are building some proficiency, you really can make a difference in your career because there'll be more choices for you--and probably more pay."

The Chinese class at West Potomac, which in 1996 was one of the first in the county, is part of an academically rigorous curriculum designed to graduate students ready to compete in the global marketplace. The school's robust foreign language program, which also offers Spanish, French, German and Latin, enrolls more than half of the student population and has created opportunities for trips abroad, including a visit to China that Zhang sponsors during spring break.

Located in a suburb of Washington, D.C., between George Washington's Mount Vernon mansion and downtown Alexandria, West Potomac is one of the most diverse schools in northern Virginia. It's a bird's-eye view of American society: culturally, students come from 67 countries and speak 41 different languages; economically, local residences range from multi-million dollar homes to housing projects; and academically, English language learners and students with disabilities account for one in three students.

And, in the midst of this broad diversity, all 2,000 students are held to high standards. "We're pushing really hard to get our kids to take the biggest challenges they can," said Principal Rima Vesilind.

That means encouraging more students to take rigorous course work that would prepare them to succeed in college. This year, an additional 69 juniors and seniors enrolled in Advanced Placement (AP) courses, bringing the total enrollment to 566 students. The school's AP network offers an extensive selection of college-level classes in biology, calculus, computer science, foreign languages, physics, psychology, statistics and world history, among others.

In addition, as part of the college preparation plan, last spring West Potomac kicked off an SAT-prep program that faculty members have credited partly with a 56-point gain on last year's test score average of 1540 (on a 2400-point scale), the largest jump in the district's recorded history. Provided at no cost to students, the 15-week program required participants to attend Saturday morning sessions and complete daily online drills that involve grammar checks, math probes and other activities that "really strengthen a kid's academic prowess," said Barbara Conner, who helped to initiate the program.

Conner is a specialist in the school's College and Career Center, which helps students identify potential careers, write resumes, find internships and navigate the college application process. To help introduce upper-classmen to the college experience, she arranges one-on-one sessions at the school with college representatives from all over the country to discuss, for example, life as a freshman, unique trends in majors, scholarship opportunities and new developments on campuses. This year, at least 80 deans of admissions or their staff members are expected to visit. Such efforts help explain the college matriculation rate at West Potomac: 90 percent of the Class of 2006 went on to pursue higher education.

The school is also home to one of the district's five professional technical centers, which offers advanced career-oriented electives in 12 subject areas, including Chinese, criminal justice, early childhood education, medical health technologies and television production. As the newest facility, the West Potomac Academy has instructional labs with technologies used by professionals in the field; for instance, aspiring dentists can perform X-rays and construct mouth guards.

The increasing demand to graduate students who are technologically savvy, foreign language proficient, and academically advanced is an indicator of the changing times, perceives Conner: "Gone is the sleepy little world of the red schoolhouse with the bell. We are now preparing students to be successful in a global world."

West Potomac High School

* Grade Span: 9-12

* Locale: Suburb

* Total Students: 2,000

* Race/Ethnicity Enrollment: 46% white, 25% black, 18% Hispanic, 8% Asian, 2% multiracial, 1% American Indian

* Free or Reduced-Price Lunch Eligible: 34%

* English Language Learners: 17%

* Special Education Students: 13%

* Percentage Proficient: In English, 88%; in math, 79% (based on 9th- through 12th-graders assessed on the 2006 state exam).

* Interesting Fact: The Chinese language teacher at West Potomac leads a foreign language course for students across the state through a distance learning program.
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Title Annotation:meeting a critical need
Author:Ashby, Nicole
Publication:The Achiever
Geographic Code:1U5VA
Date:Nov 1, 2006
Words:1261
Previous Article:Report finds U.S. Higher Education in need of change.
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