Travel Journal: Fitting the Planet Inside a School House
Visiting The Denver Center for International Studies (DCIS), a magnet school with 600 students, grades 6-12, in the Denver Public School District, seems like taking a stroll through the United Nations. Not that I’ve ever experienced meandering the corridors of the U.N., mind you. However, if I did, I would very much expect to see flags representing countries from around the globe standing next to each doorway. I would expect to see many people whose birth country is someplace other than the U.S. And, I would expect to hear a multitude of foreign languages being spoken.
Flags from nearly 50 countries line the hallways at DCIS, standing like solitary sentries guarding the entrance to classrooms. They come from nations as diverse as France, Mexico, Cambodia, Brazil and Norway. The student body represents 30 different countries of origin and includes eight foreign exchange students. And if that didn’t give the school enough of an international flavor, at any given point one might walk into a classroom and hear one of the following languages being taught: French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, and Lakota. A world map in a display case near the school’s entrance testifies to the international travels of its students. I almost expected to have my passport stamped at the main office.
During a recent visit to DCIS, five student ambassadors discussed their educational experiences at DCIS, and how the education they are receiving differs, often remarkably, from a traditional high school setting. Senior Eliza Cummings explained the two most distinguishing features at DCIS are that the school teaches global awareness across the curriculum and provides opportunities for students to build leadership skills. She described going to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula on a teacher-led trip to build schools. Later, she helped lead a group of blind Mexican-Americans on a mountain-climbing expedition in Mexico. She also spent her junior year studying in the Philippines.
“DCIS is a community that really encourages students to reach beyond a classroom,” Cummings explained. “It incorporates global dynamics and cultural sensitivity in all of our classes as well as encourages us to do that for ourselves in our lives going outside the school.”
DCIS is an affiliate of The Asia Society, an educational organization founded by John D. Rockefeller III in 1956 to promote mutual understanding and strengthen partnerships among peoples, leaders and institutions of Asia and the United States in a global context. Today more than 30 public schools in seven states are part of International Studies Schools Network (ISSN). The Asia Society works in partnership with school districts and charter authorities to create the ISSN. Nationally, 85% of all students are minorities, and 74% are from low-income families.
The school encourages student organizations, not just the kind one might find at most schools – a school newspaper or yearbook club, Beta Club, or foreign language club. DCIS has a Chinese Choir club. A Mongolia club takes students on annual excursions to Mongolia. There’s a student affiliation of The Peace Corps that takes students abroad each year to participate in service projects. Last year the faculty advisor for a model United Nations organization took a group of students to Cuba to study their government and social system.
Cummings pointed out teachers use the trips as an extension of classroom learning. Referring to a friend who traveled to Cuba, she said, “They met with local officials. They were surveying. They were interviewing different people who have experienced different parts of Cuban culture. It’s really a testament to our teachers who work really hard to make sure our trips don’t turn into, ‘Let’s have a vacation together.’”
Dillon Hunter, an 8th grader in his third year at DCIS, traveled to Japan during spring break on a trip conducted by his Japanese teacher. “We really get immersed in the culture and become part of the culture and learn customs and improve our language skills. We did what the locals did and became immersed in the culture.”
Clearly, as anyone who has traveled internationally can attest, foreign travel is expensive, even when students are not dining at restaurants awarded three stars by Michelin or staying in upscale hotels. To help defray the student expenses, DCIS has created a privately-funded foundation that awards scholarships to students. Not all students receive scholarships for travel experiences, but many do. Cummings received a Levine Scholarship for her study abroad program last year. It provided $1,500 to pay her airfare and travel insurance. Smaller scholarships are also available for student travel.
Another hallmark of the school is a program called, ‘Passages,’ which develops students’ critical thinking and deeper learning skills. Students are required to complete 3-4 passages in order to graduate with honors. Each passage involves an independent learning experience. The first passage involves writing a 15-page research paper, written on a college level. The other passages are activity-based, embedded in learning goals the students set. Part of Cummings’ current passage involves a cross-cultural analysis based on her own experiences studying in the Philippines last year along with those of a classmate, Ca’La Connors, who studied in Peru.
Cummings is sending college applications to some of the nation’s most prestigious institutions - Stanford. UC-Berkeley. Yale. Colombia. Cornell. Brown – where she intends to study international relations. She says the education students receive at DCIS resonate with colleges and universities when they review applications and award scholarships. Cummings said each year’s graduating seniors at DCIS receive an cumulative average of $6 million in college scholarships.
“That is a testament to the fact that our seniors have stories to tell that colleges want to hear about, because they’re so unique,” Cummings explained. “College preparedness and college readiness are really prominent in our senior curriculum.”
Because DCIS is a magnet school, students are selected based on an application. One part of the application requires an essay in which students as early as the 5th grade explain their interest in attending a school that focuses on global awareness. Several students told me they knew when they were that young that they wanted to learn more about global issues and cultures.
“In today’s global world, we can’t afford to be students who believe the U.S. is the only country that matters,” Cummings told me. “In order to compete in a global marketplace and in order to be global citizens it is so important to have a global education and to be aware. … It’s just unrealistic in today’s globalized world not to have that perspective.”
Hunter said, “I think some of the best discoveries and new advances in the world have come from people who are curious about cultures and who are culturally aware. What DCIS is doing is they are building that curiosity and helping them continue that curiosity into college and their careers.”
“DCIS has a passion about service. Our students want to help other people,” Connors added. “And if there were more schools like ours, I believe the world would be a better place.”