Fairfax School Board member seeks to ‘internationalize’ curriculum

By day, Ryan McElveen is a researcher at the Brookings Institution who scrutinizes one of the most opaque and powerful governments in the world: the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

By night, McElveen, 27, serves as the youngest elected official on the Fairfax County School Board, where he works to bring transparency to the local government.

“The scale of the issues are so drastically different, it does present a very difficult experience for me to transition between the two,” McElveen said.

His interest in Chinese policy analysis was sparked at Fairfax’s George C. Marshall High School, from which McElveen graduated in 2004 as valedictorian and served as president of his class.

He became interested in China during his world history class, McElveen said, and pursued East Asian studies at the University of Virginia. In college, he served on the student council and pushed the administration to add global studies courses to the curriculum.

He became fluent in Mandarin Chinese and performed research on modern Asian culture, examining the rise of tanning beds and skin-whitening lotions used by Chinese women. He studied abroad in Shanghai, where he met his wife, who teaches Chinese at the Sidwell Friends School in Washington.

After receiving a master’s degree in international affairs, McElveen ran for the Fairfax board. In late August, McElveen and a Brookings colleague had an essay published in the New York Times on the rise and fall of senior Chinese political leader Bo Xilai, who faces corruption charges.

“The fact that China is always evolving and we don’t know where its going — it’s been very intriguing,” McElveen said. “ At my job currently, I’m able to look and see and predict what’s going to come in China during the next years.”

Entering his second full school year as a board member, McElveen said he is working to promote the “internationalization” of Fairfax schools programs.

Last year, McElveen lobbied the school board to expand foreign language instruction in elementary schools. McElveen hopes more language teachers will be added to elementary schools and he is promoting cross-cultural exchanges and study-abroad opportunities for older students.

McElveen said his main goal is to ensure that Fairfax students remain competitive in the world marketplace.

“It’s a significant problem,” McElveen said, noting that students in the future might be able to study foreign language through online classes. McElveen said that about 30 percent of the county’s elementary schools offer language instruction.

“We need to examine foreign language in elementary schools and see how we can expand that,” McElveen said.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.

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