Randolph Tech Center to Add Business Course All in Spanish

Randolph — Come next fall, a foreign flavor will be added to Randolph Technical Career Center’s standard offerings of diesel technology, graphic arts and building trades, among other fields.

A new program, Spanish immersion and global business management, will offer business education with an international focus starting in September at the Randolph school.

High school juniors and seniors across Vermont can also participate in the program, which initially will be capped at 15 students. All of the course material will be taught in Spanish.

RTCC’s Outreach Coordinator Mike Van Dyke has been charged with jump-starting the program, which has a first-year cost for the center of $224,000. The initiative, Van Dyke said, finds the “sweet spot” between technical and traditional education systems.

“You want students who have the technical skills and can also think creatively, analyze, think critically,” he said.

This program, he added, includes both.

Formed in collaboration with Middlebury Interactive Languages — an enterprise owned, in part, by Middlebury College — the program also includes individualized, virtual language learning, a trip to a Spanish-speaking country and enrollment in an intensive four-week summer language program, all at no cost to the participant.

In a flurry of recent activity, the Tech Center has begun the process of developing a curriculum, hiring an instructor, and recruiting students from Randolph and statewide to participate in the program.

“It’s 100 percent from scratch,” Bill Sugarman, the director of RTCC, said. “We’re building it as we speak.”

The groundwork for that process began as an idea conceived by Superintendent Brent Kay more than two years ago.

Kay attributes its genesis to a “confluence of factors”— his own language-learning in school, record participation in Randolph Union High School’s traditional Spanish classes, and the ever-growing number of Spanish speakers across the country. More than 37 million Americans over the age of 5, for example, speak Spanish at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We were looking for a new program and we wanted to push the boundaries,” Kay said.

What followed was over two years of navigating the bureaucracy of the state’s education processes and standards.

Two initial proposals — for Spanish immersion alone, and Spanish immersion combined with business — were rejected by the Vermont Agency of Education because they didn’t fit with the state’s career and technical education guidelines.

It took, Kay said, extensive brainstorming and phone calls, as well as meetings with the governor, Middlebury College leadership, and federal education officials.

The Spanish language combined with global business management, however, prevailed. In RTCC’s research, Sugarman said, Randolph school officials have found no comparable program closer than Georgia and Arkansas. Jamie Northrup, vice president of government affairs for Middlebury Interactive Languages, has been working with Kay since the beginning to envision and craft a program for RTCC.

“I think what Brent is doing is really imaginative and interesting — thinking about what a technical education center could look like beyond the traditional welding and carpentry,” he said. “He’s… expanding that to language acquisition — honing 21st century skills. I think this could be a national model.”

Middlebury Interactive serves 28 schools in Vermont and 75,000 students worldwide.

Juniors and seniors around the state can apply for the new Randolph Tech program, though students from farther afield must find their own transportation or housing. Preference will be given to RTCC’s seven sending schools: Randolph, Whitcomb, South Royalton, Northfield, Rochester, Williamstown and Chelsea. Van Dyke anticipates that, analogous to the rest of the tech center’s 12 programs, about half of the students will come from Randolph.

In contrast to the typical high school language class, Northrup said, “There’s no vocab list, no verb conjugation. Students are using Spanish in real-life scenarios — it’s OK if they don’t know all the words they hear and it’s OK if they make mistakes.”

For a couple of hours every day, each student will participate in Middlebury Interactive’s virtual Spanish learning program, in which he or she will complete complex real-life simulations on a computer.

“That’s the cultural piece — full immersion, full speed. And it’s asynchronous — so you can be working on something different from your neighbor,” Kay said.

Kay described demos he had seen, where the student navigated videos of actual Spanish streets, buying bread, performing as a waitress, or asking for directions.

“It was phenomenal,” he said.

The rest of the day, students will spend learning international business management in a more typical classroom setting, with topics that include economics, international marketing, business ethics, trade relations, and personal finance management.

Assuming it fills to capacity, the cost of the initiative stands at $224,000. That price tag, Sugarman said, is comparable to the start-up cost of any of the more traditional RTCC programs. In a few years, the immersion program will support itself with the tuition from sending schools. And in the meantime, RTCC will apply for a $50,000-$70,000 program innovation grant from the Agency of Education and use past years’ surplus.

After the first year, Sugarman said, the annual cost will be $185,000.

Meanwhile, Van Dyke has begun a campaign to generate interest in the program, reaching out to local news outlets, contacting parents, and visiting area schools. Applications are currently available on www.randolphtech.org and will be accepted on a rolling basis.

“There was a really positive reception from the kids,” Sugarman said of the last school visit. “It seems like there’s interest.”

On March 6th and 13th, representatives from Middlebury Interactive will lead an information session for students and their parents to discuss the program and offer a demonstration of the interactive technology.

Van Dyke’s own office has been one of the necessary sacrifices in advancing his vision — he has been occupying next year’s classroom. Now Van Dyke’s lone desk sits in the bare, white-walled room, with a ladder on one side, standing under an empty light bulb socket. But Van Dyke doesn’t seem troubled by the loss.

“Any student who has bilingualism or better is going to have a better chance in the global economy,” he said. “That’s exciting for me.

“I just can’t wait for the first application,” he added.

Katie Jickling can be reached at katiejickling @gmail.com.