Small Town Schools Chief Bridges Cultures Through Language Learning
- Expertise: Global Education
- Position: Superintendent
- District: Bellefonte Area School District, Bellefonte, Pa.
Reading, writing, rolled R’s, and Han characters: In Bellefonte, Pa., students from kindergarten on up get a dose of Mandarin or Spanish, alongside the traditional subjects.
It’s part of Superintendent Michelle Saylor’s vision for using foreign-language learning as a lever to getting students and teachers alike to think about what global citizenship really means and the district’s role in promoting it.
“From my perspective, language is that conduit into really understanding another culture,” she said. “The nuances of language, the vocabulary of language really give you insights into other people you don’t have without that component. Plus, it gives our kids an advantage, in a world where everyone but Americans are bilingual or multilingual.”
When Saylor arrived in 2012 to serve as the 2,700-student district’s assistant superintendent, its foreign-language offerings were both modest and traditional, focused mostly on high school Spanish. Now, world languages begin in K-3, pick up again in 6th grade, and continue through high school. (Saylor intends to close the gap as soon as resources and logistics allow.)
In addition to Spanish and Chinese, which are taught at all those levels, the district’s French program, which was hanging by a thread in high school when she arrived, now begins in 8th grade and incorporates advanced courses.
Lessons from the Leader
- Be Inclusive: Appreciate everyone’s voice. Everyone has something valuable to say.
- Listening Is Paramount: Consider all facets of the process and make sure you’re listening to what people need to know and understand so you don’t leave them behind.
- Know Your Role: Sometimes being a leader is all about planting a seed, sometimes it’s watering somebody else’s and watching it grow, and sometimes it’s getting out of the way.
But it’s Saylor’s work on Mandarin language that is the clearest example of her out-of-the-box thinking: For several years now, she’s hired graduate students from Chinese universities to teach Bellefonte’s students. Saylor recruits them through a partnership with the Confucius Institute at the University of Pittsburgh, which helps the teachers obtain work visas and placements.
Between the two teachers of Mandarin, they cover language instruction across the grades and also lead lessons on culture, from Tai Chi to handicrafts, like calligraphy and paper-cutting.
Saylor says it can be difficult dealing with international bureaucracy and getting the right candidates. “It’s not, ‘I found a teacher, let’s bring her in,’ ” she said. But her bigger challenge, initially, was smoothing over apprehensions about the language program’s rapid growth. Some parents were initially skeptical about critical languages, favoring the more traditional ones. One father, Saylor said, demanded to know whether the addition of Mandarin also meant teaching about communism.
But over the past few years, the skepticism has abated, partly because Saylor has worked hard to show the connections between language, global competence, and the economy.
“Pennsylvania has a tremendous influx of international companies, but they have had problems filling a lot of job openings because our graduates don’t know how to interact with someone who might not understand their same value set. Even finding someone with a technology background and fluency in Spanish is really tough in Pennsylvania,” she said.
“Global markets really affect local markets. Our kids are going to leave Bellefonte. It is not a town that can support every student who graduates. They’re going to need to have these skills to innovate, communicate, understand, and build capacity in others. They can’t do that if they can’t understand where someone else comes from.”
Saylor, 56, grew up in a tight-knit, working-class family near Nazareth, Pa., and came to K-12 fairly late in her career. Her résumé before is impressive for its unusual array of jobs: She was a phlebotomist for trauma and AIDS patients, worked in a sewing factory and a chemical lab, was an executive assistant to a bank president, and a secretary to a cardiologist.
But there was a common thread, too. Most of those jobs required her to explain new technologies or processes to others. She excelled at it, and eventually, it led her into education. Her experiences, she said, helped shape her commitment to giving children of all backgrounds the chance to experience the world.
While Bellefonte is homogenous in one sense—it’s overwhelmingly white—it’s nevertheless a diverse mix of classes and cultures. Professionals commuting to State College, just 12 miles away and the home of Penn State, live and work alongside farmers and small business owners. About a third of the district’s students qualify for subsidized school lunches. And Bellefonte is politically diverse, too: Voters split nearly 50-50 in the 2016 presidential election.
“I walked in a lot of the shoes of the people I serve now; I can understand their fears when it comes to change,” Saylor said.
Similarly, while not bilingual herself, Saylor is an avid traveler and has dabbled in French and Italian. It’s led her to the realization that it doesn’t matter if you’re fluent in another language as long as you try to speak, she says, and that’s why she finds language instruction so powerful: It’s an encouragement to jump in and create a conversation.
She taught high school English and worked as a principal in two other Pennsylvania districts before leading the curriculum work for the Wilson district in Reading, Pa. It was in Reading that, with the aid of a regional education service provider, Saylor hired her first teacher from China.
When Saylor came to Bellefonte, she brought critical insights from Wilson. For one, using host families for the Chinese teachers didn’t always work, given some differing cultural and logistical expectations over matters like household chores. In Bellefonte, the two Chinese teachers share an apartment, and Saylor connects them to the Chinese community in State College. She taps volunteer families to provide other supports, including hosting them at holidays, helping them explore Pennsylvania, and providing transportation.
Meanwhile, Saylor has worked to make connections between language and global awareness in other subjects. It’s not a formal mandate, which Saylor thinks usually doesn’t result in teacher buy-in. Instead, she looks for opportunities to encourage teachers’ own interests and connections and to build their confidence in trying new things. Some classes now focus on globally themed texts, beginning with the diary of Malala Yousafzai, the world’s youngest Nobel laureate. Others have harnessed Skype and the internet to offer a two-way window into sister schools in Nigeria, India, and other countries.
In the summer, Bellefonte hosts a free, weeklong language camp where students are exposed to Spanish and Mandarin, but also Russian and American Sign Language. The camp focuses on basic vocabulary, as well as song, dance, and culture. About 60 students participate each year.
“It’s one of those things where I am so appreciative of this community that sits in conservative America and their ability to open their minds to other ideas,” Saylor said.
Despite its postcard-ready Victorian homes and bucolic setting, Bellefonte has the same internal politics as anywhere else, and Saylor had to deal with them in 2016, when she took over the superintendent’s job.
That January, the school board opted, in a divided vote, not to renew her predecessor’s contract. Saylor, who had been the assistant superintendent, faced the daunting task of helping to rebuild a collaborative relationship with the board. She hesitated initially: She took the top job on an interim basis, wanting to be sure the fit was right both for her and for the board.
The district’s plainspoken board president, Rodney Musser, simply says that having vetted three superintendents in the past, he knew Saylor had the goods.
“We didn’t think it was necessary for us to go out and interview people when we thought we had the right candidate,” he said. “She understood the circumstances and she performed well.”
And now, as superintendent, “she’s performed above my expectations,” he said. “And I did have high expectations, I want you to know.”
Passion for Curriculum
It’s a more public-facing role than her prior one, but those in the district say Saylor is well-suited to it.
“She is just so approachable,” said Natalie Edwards, the president of the parent-teacher organization at Bellefonte Elementary, who has six children in the school system. “She just has a really calming way about her.”
Foreign language may be the soul of Saylor’s curriculum work, but she has taken the same zeal toward other content areas.
From my perspective, language is that conduit into really understanding another culture. Plus, it gives our kids an advantage, in a world where everyone but Americans is bilingual or multilingual.
“If you go into education, you already have a passion, but there is always some niche, something that really drives you,” said Tammie Burnaford, now the assistant superintendent. “Michelle’s passion is curriculum. She brings a lot of innovative ideas to that.”
She has helped, for instance, mend misconceptions about career and technical education by convening the district’s secondary-math teachers with peers at the Central Pennsylvania Institute of Science and Technology—a technical high school serving Bellefonte and two other nearby districts.
“I wanted them to think about how can we create a more fluid experience for our students, and use a common language, and mitigate that perception that career and technical education is where you send kids you don’t want to work with,” she said. The teachers sat in silence for 10 minutes before the ice melted, she recalled.
Don’t mistake Saylor’s talent for listening and empathy with a fear of making the tough calls, though. She holds firm to the things she believes in, even when they entail some uncomfortable negotiations.
Her foreign-language vision initially upset her district’s teachers’ union, which wanted to reserve the two Mandarin teaching positions for permanent, dues-paying employees rather than hiring temporary ones. The issue was ultimately settled in arbitration.
Saylor agrees that, ideally, those would be permanent positions, but teachers with the appropriate credentials are scarce—Pennsylvania prepared just six Chinese-language teachers in 2014-15, according to federal data. And she was unwilling to put the language program on hold in the meantime.
“I made a promise to our teachers here in Bellefonte and I hold to this promise: When we can find high-quality Chinese teachers, I will hire them,” she said.
One of her ongoing ambitions is to give every student and administrator the chance to travel. So far, a voluntary program has sent about 70 students as far away as the Dominican Republic and China, where they spend time in schools and stay with host families.
“I want to say we have great things going on here in Bellefonte, too. It’s a point of pride for us,” said Edwards, the Bellefonte Elementary parent. “We are not a very ethnically diverse area … so the fact that we have these other opportunities for cultural and ethnic exposure through the foreign-language opportunities, I just think that is fantastic.”