|Fulton Science Academy in Atlanta, Georgia A GULEN CHARTER SCHOOL|
With new immigration laws that have caused outcry among advocacy groups, Georgia's reputation for diversity has seen better moments.
But over the past few years, the state's education system has made quiet but steady strides in helping students build cultural competency and language proficiency.
Nearly 380,000 students in grades 6-12, about 23 percent of all students enrolled in public schools, were taking world language courses in 2010. The total increased by 39 percent from 272,613 during the previous year, according to Jon Valentine, program specialist for world languages and international education at the Georgia Department of Education.
The fact that the passionate 38-year-old's position even exists is a testimony to how forward-looking the state has been on the subject, he said.
Perhaps because he knows first hand how studying a language and culture can change a student's outlook, Mr. Valentine describes his job in the same way a satisfied customer talks about his favorite product.
As a high schooler in Mansfield, Ohio, who had never considered crossing the pond, he won a scholarship to spend his senior year in Germany.
"Living abroad changed everything in my life," said Mr. Valentine, who now speaks advanced German.
He's dedicated to bringing similar opportunities to students in Georgia schools, not just for the sake of knowledge, but because he believes the jobs of the 21st century require not only language skills, but also a willingness and ability to collaborate cross-culturally.
In a global economy, unprepared students will hit a "glass ceiling" in their careers, he said, noting that Spanish has become essential for Georgia farmers and that nurses, police officers and members of the military can get signing bonuses if they can speak the language.
Mr. Valentine feels that the state's significant progress in language instruction has gone largely unnoticed. Sixteen languages are now taught in Georgia, mostly in high schools.
Though the state requires no foreign-language instruction for high school graduation, students at public universities need two years of credit to get a degree. The fact that colleges consider language proficiency in their admissions decisions has driven interest in high schools, Mr. Valentine said.
The next frontier is to introduce more middle-school programs, as two years just isn't enough to bring students to the level where they can accomplish things in a language.
"What if I told you you only needed two years of math? How much math could you do?" Mr. Valentine said.
Still, most education decisions are out of the state's control. Language programs are funded solely at the local level, so the state has no direct say over which ones are taught where, Mr. Valentine said. Passionate teachers or a large number of native speakers in an area often drive interest and funding for a language.
Around the state, Spanish still dominates, making up more than two-thirds of foreign-language enrollment at 284,200, counting students in middle school and up. French is a distant second at 62,929, followed by Latin at 15,367 and German at 11,753. Mandarin Chinese is coming on strong at 2,474, and brand new programs have been launched in Korean and Arabic. Nearly 200 students at Fulton Science Academy are learning Turkish.
German has been a bright spot, with 10,677 students taking the language in 2010. Chamblee High School is one of 20 schools in the nation to offer the test for the German Language Diploma, which is issued directly from Berlin. More than 20 Georgia students scored at the highest level in 2010, allowing them to study at German universities for free if they choose.
Georgia education Superintendent John Barge in June traveled to Saxony to sign an agreement with the German state to increase teacher and student exchange. Also, the German government is relocating Petra Reuter, its Southeastern educational consultant, from Miami to the Atlanta consulate in August. That's partly thanks to the large number of German programs and companies here, Mr. Valentine said.
A fountain of information about language education in the state, Mr. Valentine cited other innovations like the Georgia Virtual School, an online program that allows high school students to take courses that augment or replace classroom studies.
Language classes account for more than half the enrollment.
"They have to shut down Chinese every year because it fills up so fast," he said.
Contrary to popular belief, student interest in languages isn't waning in Georgia. The gap is on the teacher side, Mr. Valentine said, pointing to nine positions he says he could fill right now if qualified applicants came along.
As for Mr. Valentine, he has no plans to leave a position where he can influence so many lives.
"I love this job. I will do this job for as long as I can," he said.