In these tough economic times, when cuts to education have become standard fare, it makes sense to extend the reach for funds.
Washington Saratoga Warren Hamilton Essex BOCES teacher Peggy Sharkey received her first grant five years ago and, since then, she’s landed numerous, competitive federal, national and local grants valued at a cool $2 million.
Her first grant — from the U.S. Department of Education’s Foreign Language Assistance Program — netted $775,000, including matching funds, to create a Language and Cultural Resource Center for schools in the wide region served by this North Country BOCES. The mission of the LCRC is to increase the language diversity, language proficiency and cultural awareness of students. Its services include program development for students, professional development for teachers, media center resources for the district and advocacy for English Language Learners.
“I remember sitting in my living room late at night thinking I must be crazy to make my first grant a federal grant … but someone has to, so why should I stop myself from trying?” recalled Sharkey, a member of the Saratoga Adirondack BOCES Educators Association.
She encourages other teachers to apply for grants because it is the teachers, she said, who are so familiar with their institutions and the needs of their students, and they can articulate the needs and potential solutions clearly.
“It is critical now, when programs are collapsing, to find alternative sources of funding,” she said, pointing out that, 10 years ago, there was one ESL teacher in this BOCES as opposed to a dozen to meet the needs of current students. In the area served by this BOCES, many families are arriving from overseas as nanotechnology and other high-tech industries expand.
“They are asking districts: What foreign languages do you offer? What ESL?” Sharkey said.
And, for American students, there is much need to learn other languages.
“I had lived in Spain and Japan for 10 years. I realized (here) we lacked the infrastructure to support the internationalization of our curriculum,” said Sharkey. “It’s so important when we’re talking about the 21st century student.”
“While the current focus of the grants is Chinese, we have also supported other initiatives, including Spanish and French programs for students and immersion professional development programs for multiple languages,” Sharkey said.
Students are being hurt by the loss of language programs being cut by districts as they struggle to stay afloat under diminished state funding. “It’s a challenge for all of us … working to internationalize our students experience,” she said. “The reality we face is that these programs are being cut.”
This leaves the language teaching community concerned that students will not have the knowledge to work internationally, or to be responsible global citizens, Sharkey said.
That said, it is easy to see why she focuses her grant applications on language programs. Her most recent grant, a three-year, $780,000 grant from the Department of Education’s Foreign Language Assistance program, is dubbed Project Chinese.
The project is a three-year extracurricular program of after-school, online and summer classes. Already, more than 100 students are signed up for the summer program, which is also supported by a Department of Defense grant called StarTalk. The summer camp is what Sharkey calls an “immersion environment” of Mandarin Chinese language and cultural activities, such as painting, cooking, calligraphy, ping pong and street games. Heritage speakers, from the Albany Chinese Community Center, also participate. Students will visit Chinatown and the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City.
“What’s most important is catching students’ imagination so they can dream and aspire to learn a language like Chinese,” she said. “I think everyone knows the impact of China on the U.S. It’s advantageous for children to learn about China.”
Parents’ programs are also available through adult education, she said.
The BOCES program also provides professional development for a dozen Chinese teachers.
The WSWHE BOCES has been invited to be part of the Hanban-Asia Society Confucius Classroom Network, which has 100 model programs in the United States as part of a connection amongst exemplary Chinese language programs. They also provided Sharkey’s program with a grant.
The network is helping them establish a sister school at Southwest University in Chong Qing. This spring, four representatives visited seven of the school districts within the WSWHE BOCES.
“They’re very interested in learning about our education system, especially our student-centered teaching, and how we modify instruction to meet individual needs,” Sharkey said.
Two years ago, Sharkey was part of a group hosted by the China Institute that went a rural study tour to Beijing, Xian and Chengdu.
Back home, she focuses on finding more ways to share her love and appreciation of different cultures with students here.
-- Liza Frenette