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Tuesday, November 16, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Dual-language school lauded as national model

Seattle Times staff reporter

When Principal Karen Kodama enters a kindergarten classroom in Seattle's John Stanford International School, the students pause from learning numerals, greet her in Japanese and enthusiastically bow to her as a "sensei," or teacher.

And on Friday, the school's newest kids on the block — Bantu refugees from Somalia — joyfully sang a poem in their native Maay tongue. They weren't in harmony, but they were a hit.

The Latona neighborhood school, now in its fifth year, requires students to learn math and science in Spanish or Japanese as well as study reading, writing and social studies in English — an approach called "dual-language immersion."

Today the public school is being recognized by the nonprofit Asia Society and the Goldman Sachs Foundation in a national report, "Schools for the Global Age: Promising Practices in International Education." The two groups hope to inspire others to replicate the school's model.

"The Stanford school is probably the most outstanding elementary school we've looked at," said Michael Levine, director of education at the New York-based Asia Society, which promotes awareness of Asian cultures. "It serves as a model for how foreign-language studies should be taught in America."

Less than three months before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a commission brought together by the Asia Society warned that most Americans, especially young people, lacked basic knowledge about Asia, even though it comprised 60 percent of the world's population.

The commission found that more than 80 percent of American adults and students could not identify India as the world's largest democracy.

One-quarter of college-bound high-school students could not name the Pacific Ocean as the body of water separating Asia from North America.

And among K-12 students who are studying a foreign language, fewer than 2 percent study an Asian language, the commission found.

Striving to be bilingual, says John Stanford's Kodama, is "really an appreciation of other cultures. That in and of itself is important, as well as having a global perspective of the world."

Applying knowledge of other cultures to solving international problems — such as terrorism, poverty and environmental destruction — is a critical skill for the 21st century, according to the Asia Society and the foundation.

"This is so clear after 9/11," said Michele Anciaux Aoki, director of educational programs at the World Affairs Council in Seattle. After the attacks, federal investigators made public appeals for Arabic translators. "We are not building the capacity we need in this country to communicate with the rest of the world on their terms."

Moreover, one in six U.S. jobs is tied to international trade, the report states. Asia overtook Europe as the United States' leading trade partner in 1979. The whooshing sound of high-tech or food-processing jobs moving to Asia or South America has been particularly acute in Washington state.

Aoki, a leader in a coalition called International Education Washington, says the state should require high-school students to take foreign languages to graduate. Generally, only students who plan to attend four-year colleges and universities need to have taken at least two years in one foreign language.

Nationwide, some 304 dual-language immersion programs exist in 26 states, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Applied Linguistics. Their numbers grew sharply starting in the early 1990s, but nearly all of them offer only English-Spanish programs.

A recent survey by the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction found very few schools offering language instruction in Arabic, Chinese, Russian or Japanese.

Those that want to offer dual-immersion programs often can't raise enough money to put a bilingual instructional assistant in every classroom, as Stanford International does.

And raising money has been part of Stanford International's success. An annual breakfast at the W Hotel has raised $60,000, which the elementary school splits with Hamilton International Middle School.

The Goldman Sachs Foundation awarded the school $25,000 last year, while several foundations gave $150,000 in grants, including money to support international artists-in-residence. And the school's parents raised about $70,000.

Kodama has a grants committee of parents and staff members who raise money so the school can conduct videoconferences with children in other nations. Last month, the school mailed videotapes to a "sister school" in Japan, with students introducing themselves in Japanese and showing off watercolor self-portraits and Japanese calligraphy.

Despite the buzz the school has generated, Kodama said her staff is still learning by trial and error. Last year was the first time the school's fourth-graders took state tests. Native Spanish speakers did poorly on the math test, which prompted teachers to start giving them math homework in Spanish and English.

"We're not there yet," Kodama said, but "we're willing to share what we've learned with others so they don't have to reinvent the wheel."

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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