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How DC Public Schools Are Going Global

By Kate Ireland — November 14, 2017 9 min read
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Editor’s Intro: As we celebrate International Education Week, Kate Ireland, Director of Global Education for DC Public Schools, shares her district’s story and how they successfully promoted global learning, along with the challenges they faced and their key takeaways. I’m proud to serve on the DCPS Global Education Advisory Board and play a (very!) small role in the great work they are doing.

We believe that every school and district has the opportunity and responsibility to build students’ global competence, irrespective of region, content, or grade level. And that’s why, in the summer of 2014, DC Public Schools (DCPS) tackled a complicated question head on: What would it take to bring global programs and opportunities to all students?

At that time, some DCPS schools were effectively providing global learning via international spring break travel, robust world language instruction, and global partnerships. But the access to these programs was limited. We knew this disparity impacted our ability to prepare all of our students to be global citizens, and we believed the effect on college and career preparedness, as well as social emotional outcomes, was significant. With this in mind, we founded the DCPS Global Education division and set about leveling the global learning playing field for all our students.

Finding Our Global Vision

The District of Columbia is a city of contrasts, with great wealth and great poverty sitting side by side. Within DCPS, we serve a student population that is 76 percent free/reduced meals, over 80 percent students of color, and has experienced historically low proficiency rates.

We are also the fastest improving urban school district in the country, with rising graduation rates, test scores, enrollment, and student satisfaction levels. Still, many of our students come from backgrounds that traditionally do not have access to global travel, world language instruction, International Baccalaureate programs, global studies, or international partnerships. Recognizing this gap, our district decided it was critical to ensure that all students, regardless of where in the district they live, are prepared to graduate as global citizens.

TIP FOR YOUR DISTRICT: Don’t let the narrative of your school, district, town, state, or region determine if global is for your kids. All students must be prepared as global citizens to succeed in today’s interconnected world. Find data around the languages spoken in your community, identify the international businesses in your area, and note new migrant populations. Mapping the Nation is a great place to start. Make the case that you are already global, and find the leadership who can help share that message!

DCPS Global Education started with a team of two to cultivate existing programs and learn from those already doing the work of K-12 global education. We began with world languages, the Embassy Adoption Program (EAP), and International Food Days, all of which had existed in DCPS for years.


  • World Language instruction was in the midst of a large expansion to all elementary schools, but faced major deficits in curriculum and teacher recruitment.
  • The EAP, a partnership with Washington Performing Arts, pairs DCPS 5th and 6th grade classrooms with local embassy representatives for a year of global programming within the classroom. The program was nearing a 40th anniversary and faced an increasing demand from teachers, with over 100 applications for the 50 program spots.
  • International Food Days paired embassy partners with DCPS Food and Nutrition Services, to deliver a full day of menus reflecting each embassy’s country, across all DCPS sites. The program had launched a few years earlier, and was still growing in understanding among partners and schools.

All three programs represented an existing district investment in global education, and each had opportunities for growth and expansion.

Finding our global education vision was not simply about fine-tuning our existing programs, however. We met with principals, spoke with teachers, connected with outside districts and associations to learn which global partners were active in our city and what global education looked like in other places. These first few days were truly about listening and asking, and we learned a tremendous amount. Armed with this information, we defined what global education meant to DCPS, and we built a vision and mission for achieving this.

TIP FOR YOUR DISTRICT: Find your vision by first defining what global education means for your schools and community. Spend time investigating with classrooms, business bureaus, nonprofit organizations, to see what might already be happening and let that help develop your definition. Once you identify a definition that works best for your students, create concrete goals and connect tangible programs to this definition. People will be able to rally behind a vision if they understand what global education means for your students, your school, your district (and for them!).

Finding Our Global Voice

Once we understood where we were headed, we needed to energize our community and advocates.

We divided our work into three focus areas: World Languages, Global Programs, and Global Studies. Our team expanded to a total of five staff members, launched a fully funded study abroad program, took on management of the District’s 8 International Baccalaureate schools, and opened three global studies campuses. We created a 2020 plan, with a roadmap with goals for expanding this global access and world readiness to more DCPS students within 5 years’ time.

We invested in and celebrated our educators. Programs like new teacher mentorship and a Global Leadership Opportunity for Bilingual Educators (GLOBE) Fellowship provided world language teachers with peer and district supports. A curriculum development project invited Embassy Adoption Program teachers to develop training materials for the program. International Food Days were expanded and enhanced through new marketing materials and programming guides, with embassy partners now scheduled to host food days over a year in advance.

School-based staff (teachers, counselors, social workers, library media specialists, assistant principals) were engaged to lead our DCPS Study Abroad program, from recruitment to selection to in-country travel. Leading global education researchers from Harvard University hosted year-long professional development trainings at our new Global Studies campuses. World language teachers wrote and co-developed a kindergarten through AP-level curriculum that spans seven languages. Across our programs, we knew that the only way to ensure sustainable, impactful global programming was to engage local school advocates who could be leaders of the work within their school communities.

We looked outside our organization to find partners who shared our vision. Our Embassy Adoption Program partner, Washington Performing Arts, worked to expand the EAP, with a goal of 100 school-embassy partners by 2020—and worked to bring more global artists to our Global Studies campuses and world language classrooms.

We connected with many local partners such as the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting (to develop program content), the US State Department and Washington Passport Agency (to provide 533 students with their first passports), and a DCPS Global Education Advisory Board, comprised of local, national, and international experts help us build strong, impactful programming for DCPS students and educators.

TIP FOR YOUR DISTRICT: Find your advocates, and know that teachers will be the strongest leaders in your work. Make sure you take time to listen, discuss, and debrief with all advocates, and be ready to use this input to change course when necessary.

Finding the Value of Global

We are incredibly proud of the global opportunities our district has been able to provide over the past three years and of the outcomes we have seen thus far. Data about our programs’ impact not only helps our team adapt and revise our approach; it also helps us share the value of global programs, and helps us work to sustain and expand DCPS’ global work.

Today, DCPS offers 7 world languages in 85 schools, with 153 teachers and 90 percent of instruction starting in elementary school. This broad investment in world languages at an early age has already demonstrated benefits; 71 percent of students meet or exceed district reading world language proficiency targets by the end of eight grade. Enrollment in AP-level world languages has increased 29 percent in the past year alone, and the AP passing rate for world languages has consistently been the highest of any AP content area for the past 3 years. Considering the 134 percent increase in jobs requesting bilingual skills in our region, we know this investment will have a tremendous impact on students’ futures.

Since June 2016, DCPS has sent over 900 students and educators on 40 fully funded global trips to 17 countries through DCPS Study Abroad. Initial evaluation results from George Washington University show that participating students demonstrate strengthened global and social-emotional competencies, such as recognizing diverse perspectives and relationship building. In addition, college and career data has shown that DCPS Study Abroad participants (as compared to non-participant peers) are more likely to complete FAFSA applications, apply to more colleges, score higher on SATs, and are accepted to more colleges. The program, which does not consider academic performance in the application, has become a tangible indicator of the impact global experiences can have on student outcomes.

Our IB schools have developed and strengthened feeder patterns, creating PK through graduation options for families. The three new Global Studies campuses have thrived, welcoming dozens of international visitors and partners in their doors to connect global perspectives with everyday content.

TIP FOR YOUR DISTRICT: Consider how you will measure success early on. Engage outside groups and higher education institutions to conduct evaluations where appropriate, and connect your district’s current indicators of success to global work.

Finding Our Global Future

While we have begun to see positive results from our efforts, we know there is a long way to go before we truly bring equal global access to all of our students. We continue to learn from our colleagues, educators, families, and students and are consistently adapting our approach, from engaging world language teachers each summer to revising curriculum, to making our eligibility criteria for DCPS Study Abroad more inclusive of students on non-traditional learning pathways. Looking ahead, we are excited to engage in the intersection between social-emotional learning and global education, and to connect our work to DCPS’ new strategic plan.

Follow DCPS Global Education and Asia Society on Twitter.

Image created on Pablo.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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