Classes without borders

International schools - on US soil - bring the world closer to home

Compared with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Principal Bill Moon had it easy. On United Nations Day at the Atlanta International School, the "nations" under his command came together without the slightest disagreement. Turkey did not squabble with Greece, the Basque Provinces picked no bone with Spain, and the United States and Mexico acted as though they had never had a border dispute. Instead, on a sunny fall morning, 45 flags fluttered toward the soccer field where their carriers sang songs about peace and internationalism.

In this case, the flag-bearers were some 300 first- through fifth-graders, each wearing the colors or the costume of the country with which they most identified.

This was more than just fun and celebration. It was part of a worldwide effort to foster internationalism through an influential medium: the classroom. In the US, a handful of schools from Atlanta to San Francisco are using everything from bilingual curricula to involvement in international projects to imbue children with a global perspective and an interest in other cultures.

"The thinking was - and is - that everyone has the right to express himself and has a valid point of view," says Anne-Marie Pierce, who has served on the board of the International School Association and heads the Washington International School (WIS) in Washington, D.C. "If people understand each other they'll quit beating each other up," she says.

Many schools adopt the international label to reflect a multinational student body or because they follow a foreign curriculum on US soil. But for the Atlanta International School (AIS) and a dozen or so other schools, the term links them to a European movement started in the 1920s.

The first internationally minded schools in Europe aimed to serve students whose parents moved from country to country. In time, they developed the International Baccalaureate, an internationally recognized diploma and curriculum. The movement also pushed an international perspective.

These aims are even more relevant today. Families uprooting every few years "used to be the exception. Now," as Mrs. Pierce points out, "it is the exception to stay in the same place." And the need for mutual understanding through the learning of language and culture has not diminished.

Whether a school can create open-mindedness is open to debate. A graduate of the first United World College - Atlantic College in Wales -Gareth Vaughan is now Upper School head at WIS, and he has come to believe that international schools give those who are already open-minded "a forum in which to grow and develop."

Many students, however, credit the international school experience with radically changing their world view. Even though her mother is Belgian, WIS eighth-grader Stephanie Abrams has lived all her life in the US, and her world ended at its borders until she transferred to WIS. "Now I think more about the world than I used to," she says. Her friend Camila Harrigan Labarca chimes in, "There's a lot more outside the US, and people don't see it," she says.

But the priorities at international schools can put students at odds with the culture beyond school walls. This often results in, as WIS senior Andr Redwood puts it, "little tolerance toward Americans." By the same token, the atmosphere is such that Andr's American half (he is also part Brazilian) has no trouble speaking up when a defense is needed or listening when the criticism is valid.

The experience tends to foster broader awareness. AIS graduate Beth Kytle, for example, discovered many classmates at Harvard University who had a much narrower focus than hers. "Many people are Americentric in what they know and care about."

Ms. Kytle got involved in the campaign against land mines at AIS, lobbying the state senator and fund-raising for the UN-sponsored Adopt-a-Minefield. Having always lived in Atlanta, she says she would not have such an immediate sense of the "interconnectedness of the world" had she not transferred to AIS in ninth grade.

Creating such an environment means infusing the curriculum with a global perspective. When texts illustrate principles of physics with examples drawn from cricket, or when teachers use baseball to explain the concept of vectors, "this is part of a colonizing force and a building of nation-state," Mr. Vaughan says.

When he taught science, Vaughan showed how cooking methods from around the world related to the principles of convection, conduction, and radiation. "Every teacher pulls from real life to illustrate principles," he says, "and they'll draw on different examples from around the world. It internationalizes things on a subtle but important level."

Having a multinational student body makes this easier. At AIS, students are from 57 countries and the faculty represents 27 nationalities. At WIS, the total number of nationalities approaches 90. This makes it easy for children to chime in with examples from their own experience, and for discussions to be anchored in firsthand connections to countries in the news. The variety of cultures on campus also forces the school to work out the trickier aspects of internationalism.

Repeatedly, faculty and administrators make the point that mutual respect does not translate into cultural and moral relativism. Just because cheating may not be a grave offense in a child's native culture does not mean that the school is more lenient with that child.

Nor will the school segregate by gender because some cultures find the sight of girls learning alongside boys offensive.

For international schools with multicultural populations, it's key to forge what Vaughan calls "an institutional culture that contains elements of others' experiences and cultures and where certain principles such as diversity are valued."

Campuses with relatively homogeneous populations face a different challenge. Researching other cultures from afar can easily become simply a theoretical exercise. Faced with that issue, the International High School in Eugene, Ore., supplements the International Baccalaureate curriculum with programs coordinated with the international student organization at the University of Oregon.

It doesn't appeal to everyone. "Around the middle of the first year," says teacher Karen Cooper, "kids typically do not want to read about other cultures anymore. It's harder to do than many adults understand." It also sets them apart from classmates following a US curriculum.

In an international school, no one country's values and history occupy center stage. "Sometimes," says Ms. Cooper, "parents and students think it's more important to know more about US history and culture. And they opt out." Ironically, their departure shows that IHS is living up to its international ideals.

The roster of international schools in the United States changes constantly as concerned parents and children establish new schools and programs, or as schools lose their international perspective and focus on a nationally focused curriculum. Schools that pursue an international agenda include: The Atlanta International School in Atlanta, Ga (K-12) The Washington International School in Washington, DC (K-12) The Dwight School in New York, NY (K-12) The United Nations School in New York, NY (K-12) The International High School at the French American International School of San Francisco in San Francisco, Calif. (9-12) The International High School in Eugene, Or (9-12) The Armand Hammer United World College of the American West in Montezuma, NM (11-12)

- Lee Lawrence

*For a list of related schools, visit the Learning section at www.csmonitor.com

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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