The grant from the U.S. Department of Defense was worth just over $2.9 million and Escambia was one of seven school districts in the country to receive it. The money was intended to fund additional foreign language classes and expanded areas of study at three of the district’s high schools, four middle schools and seven elementary schools that have high military family enrollment.
The Escambia County School District received a multi-million dollar grant in 2021 to enhance cultural education and foreign language instruction in the classroom. Since then, nonprofit The Global Corner has been changing the way elementary school students see the world.
While teaching foreign language and culture has long been part of the curriculum at middle and high schools, this grant has allowed elementary school students to have experiences that allow them to relate to the people around them that may not look like them or have grown up like they did.
Before the funds run out, community leaders are hoping students and adults can learn to appreciate the cultural, professional and potential economic benefits of broadening their world view.
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According to Global Corner Founder Lee Hansen, the travel experience of students in Escambia County varies greatly, where some of have been all the way to Kenya, while others have never been to Pensacola Beach.
When The Global Corner’s in-school Passport Program commences in the school day, students move from station to station, stamping their passports, learning greetings, geography and cultural norms. Each year, they focus on a different country.
The grant also funds an optional two-to-three-week after school enrichment program for the young learners.
Hansen, a retired Naval officer who traveled the globe during her career, founded The Global Corner 15 years ago to introduce children of Northwest Florida to the languages, customs, and cultures of people around the world. Since, its founding the organization has provided 90,000 virtual adventures to K-5 students across Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.
In this school year alone, over 78.6% of students who participated in The Global Corner’s after school program expressed they were more interested in learning about language and culture looking toward middle school.
The program has had a deeper impact than just getting children interested in learning about world languages. It has helped build a sense of belonging in students who are typically the minority, and empathy is developed in those that aren’t.
“When we were teaching about China in one of the schools that we went into, there was a little boy who was from China,” Hansen said. “He was a very quiet, very shy little boy. That day, he was the one who knew all the answers. He was the star of the show. Everybody turned to him and looked to him for answers.
“They finally realized — this kid wasn’t stupid. He was in an environment where he didn’t speak the language,” Hansen continued. “So it really gave not only him certainly a really good feeling, but it gave his classmates the understanding that, ‘Holy cow, can you imagine if you had to go to school where nobody spoke English?’ How difficult that would be.’”
Retired Navy Capt. Tim Kinsella, former base commander of Naval Air Station Pensacola, thinks the program has been a serious asset to Escambia County Public Schools as far as preparing future leaders in a diverse world. They key is starting the interest in other cultures early.
“Here in the United States, only 20% of Americans consider themselves bilingual. And the vast majority of that 20% are immigrants. People who were born here and raised here, a very, very small minority of them are bilingual in any way, shape or form. The rest of the world is about 56%,” Kinsella said. “Why is it that we refuse to embrace foreign languages here in the United States? I think it is pretty obvious that we have everything that we need here in the United States, right? We don’t need to go anywhere else. We don’t need to involve ourselves in other cultures, because we’ve got everything we need right here, right? Wrong.”
He learned this firsthand when working for NATO, where he had to understand other points of view and culture to negotiate in the business world.
“I learned very, very quickly when I worked with NATO the value of understanding other cultures and the value of giving other cultures the respect of being interested in those cultures,” Kinsella said. “If you don’t understand other cultures, other points of views, you can never hope to have a meaningful relationship. You can never hope to negotiate in business.”
Hansen said that once the five-year grant expires, the expense will back on the schools and The Global Corner to raise the necessary funds for cultural programs. But in order to secure funding, people need to understand how significant the experiences can be down the road.
“I was a little naive and thinking that we would be able to get enough grants and sponsorships and things. It was a little hard, I think, for businesses and individuals to understand the connection between children learning about language, learning about other cultures, and how they would become more well-rounded adults,” Hansen said.
Global Corner instructor Silke Johnson said people underestimate how much the elementary school students are able to learn, remember and teach others.
“They’re like little sponges, and the earlier you get to them, the more you can actually inspire them to learn about other things that they might not have known,” Johnson said. “I think it’s so important for them to understand we’re a part of a bigger world.”