Curriculum Opinion

Behind One Successful High School-Higher Education Partnership

By Fernando Rubio, Jill Landes-Lee & Jane Hacking — June 13, 2017 7 min read
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Editor’s Note: Utah is leading the way building a K-16 language immersion pipeline so students can receive uninterrupted instruction through higher education. This requires a strong partnership between institutions of higher education, school districts, and schools across the state. Fernando Rubio, Jill Landes-Lee, and Jane Hacking of the University of Utah share.

The United States is still neglecting language education, as recently released studies are showing. Dual language immersion (DLI) programs, however, seem to be bucking this trend. The number of DLI programs in the US has grown exponentially over the past few years, from 242 in 1997 to almost 450 in 2011. Nowhere is this truer than in Utah, where currently 161 schools have DLI programs in one of five languages: Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish. This year, Utah is adding Russian, and the number of students reached is projected to hit 39,000 in 196 schools.

Utah Builds a True K-16 Articulated Model

As anyone who has tried to learn a language knows painfully well, becoming proficient is a long process. In order to deliver on the promise to produce truly bilingual and bicultural citizens, Utah’s DLI program recognized that it would need to extend beyond the secondary level and provide a continuous path from elementary through postsecondary education.

Students follow a 50/50 model until grade 6 (50 percent of instruction in English and 50 percent in the target language). In grades 7 and 8, students take two courses in the target language, and in grade 9, students prepare to take the Advanced Placement (AP) exam. Students who pass the AP exam can then enroll in one upper-level university course in each of their last three years of high school. This unique Language Bridge Program, a partnership between all Utah institutions of higher education and school districts with DLI programs, is designed to fill the gap between completion of the AP exam and the start of higher education. It ensures uninterrupted language education and promotes an articulated vision for K-16 language study, establishing a clear K-16 pathway and a career pathway in two languages.

Building the Bridge

Each Bridge course is developed by a statewide team of university and high school instructors and delivered by a pair of instructors, one at the high school and one from the university. Through challenging and sophisticated approaches to analyzing and applying cultural content to project-based learning, Bridge courses focus on developing critical thinking skills and advancing students’ language proficiency toward grade-level targets. The courses further the state goal of graduating students from high school with language proficiency levels more typical of students completing a language major in college. Utah’s institutions of higher education are actively preparing for this influx of linguistically advanced students.

The Bridge Program meets the need for a secondary pathway for DLI students, but its impact goes further. The Bridge Program promotes equity and access to bilingual and bicultural citizenship in Utah by offering rigorous, upper-division university language and culture courses to any qualified student in designated high schools as determined by each district. This includes seeking out heritage language students early enough to enter the AP language pathway and then enroll in Bridge courses. Students who take all three courses graduate from high school just two courses shy of a minor in their language of study.

Lessons Learned and Advice

In the Bridge Program’s inaugural year, 2016-17, two universities delivered one Spanish course at four high schools across two school districts. But by 2020-21, courses in Spanish, French, and Chinese will be offered by five universities at 48 high schools across 15 districts. In our challenges to facilitate meaningful collaboration and support excellence in our programs, we have learned a few key lessons:

Make time to listen.
The number one lesson learned is that in creating a new educational paradigm partnering higher education and high school, both sides need frequent opportunities to sit down and listen to each other’s perspectives and learn each other’s culture. Deliberately create opportunities in both formal and informal settings to think through the challenges of developing and implementing the partnership, and nurture a vision that honors and promotes the interests of both higher education and high school.

  • This applies to administrative teams, but it is also critically important for high school teacher teams and university departments to have time to voice their doubts and concerns, predict potential barriers, and offer solutions to perceived problems. In this manner, the program model will honor input and proactively move forward to build a quality learning experience.
  • Systematically seek feedback from parents and students on their experiences in the program. Listen to, and learn from, stories of families and students who are growing up bilingual as a means to recognize or redefine the power of language within your own community. This applies strongly to heritage language students learning English, but it also carries important implications for English-speaking students developing new bilingual identities.
  • As you listen, seek out new leaders. Build their skills and empower them with active roles in continuing to spread the program message and capacity. This should include parents, teachers, fellow administrators, school board members, and individuals in local and state government.

Build upon existing structures.
If your community or state already has a strong early college program, build on it. Maybe your district has a good relationship with a local university’s education department or school. Or perhaps state legislative funding supports concurrent enrollment or dual enrollment, where students can earn credit toward high school graduation while enrolling in university courses. Don’t be limited by the current program, but allow yourself to dovetail with existing supports that work toward a common goal. You don’t have to build it from the ground up if you find partners with common interests.

Media is your friend.
As we work to build public support and understanding of what our language program has to offer, the media has served as an effective advocacy tool. I’ve watched teams craft truly impactful mission statement about language learning behind closed doors, while the public (especially parents, school boards, and members of state and local government) never see the ways that language classes are positively shaping and building our communities. We can’t afford to hide our successes when enrollment across the country is declining. To this end, get to know the public relations people at your university, in your district, and in your town. Have lunch with them or invite them to a meeting, and find out how they create a well-crafted media event. The media loves to highlight stories about kids and education, and they seek out impactful and positive stories about local communities. It may be an interesting exercise to revisit your language program’s mission (intention for impact on education) as it links to choices in curriculum and priorities for student outcomes. This may help reveal an opportunity for publicity. The point is not to be sensational or theatrical, but rather to become intentional in advocacy of language programs, especially when these programs succeed in connecting to the real world, to college and career goals, and to local, living language communities. In our efforts to minimize drop-out from our Dual Language Immersion pathway and create excitement about the possibilities of continuation into high school early college language courses, our friends in media are powerful allies in telling our story in a way that reaches a broad audience.

Some Challenges

Utah has worked to build bridges for advanced language learning for over a decade, starting with small meetings of passionate and visionary individuals from K-12 and higher education, and expanding to a statewide network that now draws national and international attention. While we celebrate the successes that we see in our students, we look ahead to a number of challenges.

  1. We must continue to build local leadership and capacity in communities as we ready for the massive influx of new programs in 2018-19.
  2. We are keeping a close eye on our ability to minimize attrition and maximize or increase access and rates of success for historically underrepresented populations in our universities.
  3. Like most states, we need more teachers.

In these challenges, we seek to take our own advice by continuing to listen, building relationships and capacity for problem solving, nurturing future leaders at the school and university levels, communicating our purpose and message, and telling the stories of our families and students whose lives have been impacted by the program.

Connect with University of Utah and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Images courtesy of the authors. Caption for second image: Taylorsville High School class of 2016-17 in downtown Salt Lake City doing a study of community mural and graffiti projects.

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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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