Young students develop Brunswick-China connection
BRUNSWICK — The term "international delegation" usually summons images of somber diplomats with business suits and briefcases.
It's less likely to bring to mind chipper elementary school students, outfitted with lunchboxes and sneakers.
But after hosting a group of 21 fifth-grade students from Jinhua, China, for the past week, some Brunswick families might be less likely to make that assumption.
The students, along with a teacher and deputy principal, were visiting Brunswick to inaugurate a new sister-school agreement between Harriot Beecher Stowe Elementary School and Affiliated Primary School of Jinhua Normal School.
During the busy trip, the visitors stayed with host families, attended classes, and visited museums, soaking up the culture, history and language of Maine and the U.S.
In return, the young visitors introduced HBS staff, students, and parents to Chinese culture with a music and dance recital at a formal signing ceremony between the two schools Wednesday night.
Officials hope the new agreement will strengthen ties between students in the two countries, encourage cultural exchange, and even set a path for future relations between the U.S. and China.
"Education is borderless," Jinhua Normal Assistant Principal Jinhe Chen said, speaking through a translator.
"Every country, every nation has to find a way to educate their kids," he continued. "Though this program, we are exposing our kids to first-hand, real-time knowledge of what HBS students go through every day."
Even after a marathon voyage from Jinhua to Brunswick, via Los Angeles and Boston, the students had energy enough to add to the flurry of activity Tuesday afternoon, as the HBS fifth grade prepared for the school's annual Civil War re-enactment.
The Brunswick students accepted their visitors into the classroom immediately, HBS Principal Jean Skorapa said.
"The kids made that connection right away, it was lovely," she said.
To her knowledge, the agreement between the two elementary schools is the first of its kind in the state, Skorapa said.
Even though the HBS community is excited about the opportunities presented with its new partners, Skorapa said there are no plans to send Brunswick fifth-graders to Jinhua, noting that many American parents aren't comfortable with sending their children out globetrotting at such an early age.
The burgeoning relationship between the two elementary schools is adding to deeper ties between Brunswick and Jinhua, a city of more than 5 million people, southwest of Shanghai.
Brunswick High School is already connected with two Jinhua schools, and Chinese students are expected to come to Brunswick this summer, repeating a trip made last year.
In return, Brunswick High School students are organizing a trip to Jinhua, maybe as early as next spring, Assistant Superintendent of Schools Greg Bartlett said.
His own trip to China last fall was "life changing" Bartlett said, recalling his amazement at the coordination and organization of Chinese students and the importance placed on education by Chinese society.
During his trip, administrators kept pressing him to encourage an elementary school relationship, Bartlett said. When he returned from the country, he and Skorapa started working to make it a reality, and about six months later, the Jinhua students arrived in Brunswick.
Although cultural exchange and study aboard programs are commonly offered at the high school and college level, exposing much younger students has its own advantages, Bartlett said.
Especially for Chinese families who want their children to attend an American university, an early immersion in English language and American culture might be a big step up, he suggested.
But Josh Zhao, the general manager of Zhejiang Foreign Service Corp., the Chinese company that arranged the match, was more philosophical about the importance of the trip.
"Some of them will be our future leaders," he said. "If they bond now, there might be a better chance for our countries to coexist without conflict. That's our long-term goal."