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High school is thinking globally

Hoping to broaden students' knowledge of the world, Needham High School is launching a global competency program that will combine travel abroad, community service, and foreign language programs.

"It's the right time and the right place . . . to make this happen for young people," said Superintendent Daniel Gutekanst.

"Citizenships, both local and global, are key values in this program and in this community."

Under the program, students would travel abroad, perform community service involving another culture (either abroad or locally), show foreign language competency at a fourth-year level, and engage in side projects from reading books to preparing dishes from other countries.

Those who complete the requirements will earn a certificate in global competence.

At the end of the program, students will prepare a portfolio documenting their experiences that Gutekanst said would look great on college applications.

Research shows that learning a second language and being exposed to other cultures improves overall academic achievement, according to April Burriss, dean of the School of International Education at Endicott College in Beverly.

"Language learners can transfer those skills to other academic subjects. They do better when they go to college," Burriss said.

"It's also a great way for students to develop new problem-solving abilities."

Funding to start the Needham program will come from a Needham Education Foundation grant, but Gutekanst said the program is designed to be cost-effective.

"I'm pleased about how we've developed this. This is not laying a brand-new program with a whole new level of bureaucracy or administration or staff," he said.

"We already have a foreign language program; we already require community service. What it is doing instead is refocusing and rechanneling what exists at high school level."

During a period of financial difficulties for some Massachusetts towns and public schools, Gutekanst is confident that foreign language and culture programs can be improved without detriment to any other department.

Gutekanst said programs like language, sports, community service, and after-school activities were not "extracurricular but cocurricular" -- vital to the educational process.

"These programs are not extra; they're essential to students' education overall," he said.

Needham launched a task force in 2005 to explore ways to improve students' cultural knowledge. The global competency program was created around principles defined by that task force.

The focus on education about other cultures comes at the right time, said Burriss.

"It's not only somewhat easier, but it's much more effective to learn language earlier because it's something you learn, forget, remember, and learn more -- it's a lifelong type of skill," she said.

Cultural education also promotes a better understanding of other people in the world.

"It's very important for us to learn about other cultures. . . . Students' own professional and personal happiness can be greatly enhanced by the ability to communicate with others," she said.

Gutekanst said the program would start in the fall. A special launch event is scheduled for Oct. 3 in the Needham High School media center.