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Mo Thurman

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The Sensitive Subject of Educational Reform

Posted: 01/16/12 04:18 PM ET

I am a SWISS Trilingual School parent. I am also the director of this small, unfortunately private, full-immersion school in Atlanta, Ga. Currently we are a K-3rd elementary school, and projected to the 12th grade. Most importantly, I am "G's" mom and her awesomeness has nothing to do with me. I believe that a full-immersion language acquisition education is the future of education, not just in America, but around the world, and I believe that this investment will save our world economy.

Our journey began with my sister and her husband, parents to two girls who, from birth, were exposed to Japanese, French, Chinese, Spanish and English. Live-in au pairs and tutors helped to make this possible. When they married they decided to invest all of their money where they thought it would be most useful: in their children. By 2006 they moved to Atlanta and opened a school. With the impending birth of our daughter, we moved to Atlanta in 2008 so that she could receive this gift. On the day of her birth, she was held by my sister's Japanese au-pair. From the day of her birth my sister spoke to her entirely in French. When she was 1 year old, her best friend was a 15-year-old Taiwanese exchange student. At 13 months, she said, "I want cake" in Mandarin; our decision had been validated.

The journey would not be without its struggles, but for us, we have no other option, and hope that this leads to an educational revolution. I feel like I've been given a huge responsibility, one I do not take lightly. When I feel frustrated I reflect upon the children whose lives I hope we have changed. We have a student, Michael, who left us for some time due to financial reasons and was placed in public school. The class was loud and had too many students. Michael spent the remainder of his school year under his desk. The school labeled him ADHD and a doctor prescribed him medication, but for nine months no pharmacist would fill the prescription because he was not yet 6 years old. Two weeks before his 6th birthday, we decided Michael should come back, whether or not they could afford it. After all, we never even took his picture down in his classroom. His grandmother told us the story about his year and agreed that no other school could give him what he needed. Within two weeks of returning, Michael was speaking French and Japanese fluently, as if he had never left. His brain simply remembered that this was what it was supposed to do. He did not go on medication, and does not sit under the table (we do not have desks, a sore point with some of our parents in the past.) However, if Michael wants to, we would let him, and I guarantee he would still learn. I should also point out that when Michael first came to us we were told he had a speech impediment. Shortly after his enrollment his speech therapist determined her services were no longer needed and credited our full-immersion environment as the reason.

We run into more families who "don't get it" than those who do. For some, language acquisition is a novelty or a status symbol. We are not interested in raising elitist or ivy leaguers. We want loving, compassionate global citizens who travel the world educating others: children who are native speakers of three languages and native to three cultures. Love is as important as math here. A love of sushi and how to use chopsticks is valued as much as science. In planning how this school is executed we think about whom we would want the children to become, not what kind of job they will be able to get. We want to create givers and not takers.

I used the word "raising" earlier, because schools should be your children's other parents. As parents we should want teachers to hug our children, and so at SWISS, hugs are incorporated into the training. We want the children to care about each other; bullying is not allowed and when a situation arises every child is talked to about how they would feel if someone teased or hurt them. We are truly a family, and like all families we sometimes disagree, but we always do what we believe is best for our children. We have lost some families along the way, and many reasons for this have been given. We see this as a journey that will be filled with pitfalls and experiments as we do away with a system that simply does not work. Our hope is that the families who are here are in it for the long haul, as we are. One thing we know never suffers is that the children are learning.

There are people who have left us who would dispute these words I type. However, I believe they do not even know that when they withdrew their children from our school they were reacting out of fear. My family has given so selflessly in this journey; my sister and I do not even receive a paycheck. Like many Americans in this broken economy, we struggle to make ends meet, but we keep moving because we believe in this not just for our children but for any child who walks through our doors. I've loved every one of our students as if they were my own and have sometimes been saddened to tears when we lose another child to fear, hurt feelings among adults, or misunderstandings. In the end it is the children who suffer most; it is this part that is hardest to bear.

We have created an online campaign, http://igg.me/p/55754?a=348638 , which we hope will not only tell our story but have people seek us out to help their communities. It is our belief that all schools should be SWISS Trilingual Schools and to settle for less would be a disservice to our children.