Chinese, American students join hands in Janesville

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Frank Schultz
Friday, August 2, 2013

JANESVILLE—Lucas Guo is a cheerful 10-year-old from China who spent three weeks this summer in Janesville, along with 26 of his classmates and 25 Janesville children.

Lucas talked to a reporter during a break from his class at Craig High School. Has his English improved?

“Yes, of course,” he replied with an easy-to-understand accent.

That's one of his parents' goals for him. The other, he said, is for him to attend college, and maybe also high school, in the United States. This was his first taste of what it might be like.

Lucas' parents' hopes for their son mesh with those of Janesville School District leaders who set up Janesville's first International Summer Institute. They wanted to get the Chinese students and their parents thinking about spending a year or two in a Janesville high school.

Equally important was to expose Janesville students to Chinese language and culture.

The institute was the school district's first major effort to bring in tuition-paying foreign students to “globalize” local students and to increase school revenues.

The Chinese students were matched with a similar number of Janesville fourth- and fifth-graders, learning art, grammar, science and other academics while also learning about each other's cultures.

All of the results might not be known for years, but it was clear during a reporter's visit to the institute that both sides were benefiting from a cross-cultural experience that is available to few children in either country.

“They are very friendly and very polite,” Lucas said, very politely, of his American counterparts.

Lucas wasn't just being nice. The children seemed to be learning from and enjoying each other. The Janesville girls taught the Chinese girls a two-person handclapping game. Two boys from either side of the Pacific Ocean draped arms around each other's shoulders during a walk from Craig to the Rock County 4-H Fair.

Students learned things not on the curriculum. For example, that horseplay, video games and cellphones are international languages.

“I like how we get to communicate with the Chinese kids,” said Angela Zrnich, 10. “I think it's pretty cool to meet someone foreign.”

Angela had a notion that all Chinese look alike, but after a few days, “I realized some people look quite different,” she said.

The Chinese parents each paid $5,000 for the experience. The cost included airfare. Local families volunteered to provide food, lodging and parenting. The Janesville School District provided Craig High School, two teachers and several others.

The district is still working on a final accounting of the costs and revenues, but officials expect to take in slightly more than it cost.

Lucas said his father, who is a policeman, and his mother, who works in a bank, would like him to attend school in the United States. Why?

“Because school here is better than China,” he said.

That appears to be a common belief. The United States is such a popular education destination that the number of Chinese students at American universities tripled between 2006 and 2010, according to one report.

Proficiency in English can help Chinese land good jobs, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, and many Chinese families can afford an American university degree because they typically have only one child.

Janesville public schools, led by Superintendent Karen Schulte, have begun an effort to tap that Chinese desire for an American education, but on a pre-college level. Schulte hopes to broaden the appeal to other countries in the future.

The soonest a tuition-paying Chinese student might attend here would be in January 2014, Schulte said, but more likely in fall 2014.

Lucas, for his part, seemed to be enjoying his stay. Asked how he liked his host family, his eyes lit up as he said, “I like pancakes.”

A few students suffered bouts of homesickness, Schulte said. Some host parents helped by offering the children Internet video chats with their parents.

Schulte said the experience was not without some bumps. The Chinese children's English was not as good as expected, for example, so two other Chinese teachers who have been visiting the district the past six months, Jessie Hou and Steven Zhang, sometimes had to translate for teachers Lauren Smith and Melissa Baier de Garcia.

Still, the Chinese spoke English better than the local kids speak Chinese, said Becca Frank, 10, who like most of the local students has had a year or two of Chinese classes.

Also assisting was local volunteer Paopei Kan, who was born in Taiwan.

The Chinese, all from Zhongguancun No. 3 Primary School in Beijing, came with a music teacher, Linda Wu.

All of the visitors adopted new first names for the journey, a common practice for Chinese visting places where people have a hard time pronouncing Chinese names.

Cultural differences arose regularly if unexpectedly.

And a sleepover at Camp Indian Trails caused a minor attack of fear.

The Chinese children loved bunk beds, which they had never seen before, but the Chinese adults worried they would fall out, Schulte said.

The Chinese might seem hypersensitive about safety, Schulte said, but that likely comes from the fact that most Chinese families have only one child. It was an accomplishment just to get parents to send their children here.

“I attribute that to the relationship we had built,” Schulte said.

Schulte noted questions in the community about the trips to China by Janesville officials since last November. This, she said, is the reason.

“You can't do this kind of work without building a relationship with the people, and it has to be face-to-face, to a certain degree, especially at first,” Schulte said.

While cultural differences were everywhere, the 72 kids seemed to get along just like any group of schoolchildren.

One day, they learned English grammar, wrote stories and compared fairytales.

How do you say “princess” in Chinese? one local student wanted to know. A Chinese student had the answer quickly after consulting her smartphone.

One of the teachers' helpers was Lucas Oren of Edgerton, a UW-Whitewater grad student who has taught in China and whose next job is a classroom in South Korea.

Oren said the Chinese are not used to the America style of education, so getting acclimated now will help them if they come back here for schooling.

Chinese education leans heavily on book learning. American education is more hands-on, with more computers, materials and other resources, and more group work, Oren said.

“This is so awesome to see,” Oren said after one day's session.

Oren thought the institute went well, especially for a first try. He gave much credit to the host families' hard work in making the children feel at home.

“I feel very proud of Janesville, and I'm not even from Janesville, to see these families coming together and making this happen,” he said.

To even see Janesville doing something like this—it's really innovative,” he added.

Teacher Baier de Garcia is a veteran of high school student exchanges. She has been involved in the district's longstanding relationship with two high schools in Argentina. She is used to seeing students from such different cultures developing relationships.

“For me, it's exciting that it's happening at such a young age,” she added. “Then, to think of what's going to happen with them at 16, because I know it's going to continue.”

In addition to learning Chinese language and culture, the Janesville kids are learning the tolerance and understanding needed when meeting people from another culture, Baier de Garcia said.

“There's definitely a language barrier, but it's exciting to see them work through that," Baier de Garcia said. “They're not calling their teacher to translate. They're figuring out how to communicate.”

Zhang said thought the students would make lifelong friendships.

“When they communicate, they don't think too much. They only enjoy playing together,” Zhang added.

Zhang agreed with his American hosts that the experience will be invaluable.

“In the future, if you want to be a successful person, you need to know another cultural background, and you need to work with people of another culture, and you need to know how to respect other people, and you can have a very successful future life,” Zhang said. “I think the world is shrinking. It's like a village.”

Americans and Chinese need each other economically, Zhang continued.

“We need to work together. That is the future life, I think,” he said.

The elementary students left Friday for China via Van Galder bus to O'Hare International Airport. A group of six Chinese high school students from Shanghai, who were similarly matched with local students, fly out Monday.

Schulte was with the younger students. She had pledged to their parents that she would accompany them safely home.

It's that kind of personal touch that makes an impression in China, Schulte said.

Schulte's flight will be her fourth to China in nine months.

“We're building a long-term plan,” Schulte said. “This wasn't just a summer institute to have a summer institute and we're done. We're building relationships for the long haul.”

As for future summer institutes, Schulte hopes to include Argentinians and children from other countries, all mixed together, learning about their cultural differences and their common humanity.


China effort raises questions about money/Name of donor revealed

Superintendent Karen Schulte's trips to China and those of a few other Janesville schools officials have been funded by donations and grants, officials have said, but some in the community have gotten the impression that details are being kept secret.

That's what school board member Kevin Murray heard from constituents, so he requested a full report on who has traveled, what expenses were, who paid and what future plans are.

Murray's request at a recent board meeting was so pointed that fellow board member Bill Sodemann felt the need to respond.

Sodemann said he believes everything has been above board at all times.

“I just asked administration just to tell the story, just tell the truth, get it out there so no one tries to guess or imply what's going on,” Murray said later.

Schulte has shared some details with The Gazette. Nasco, a Fort Atkinson business that does business with the district, is one of the contributors to the international effort, for example.

But another donor, who gave $10,000, wanted to remain anonymous.

Schulte initially would not reveal the donor's identity. Like many previous donors, this one asked for anonymity because he didn't want to be flooded with requests for donations, she said.

Schulte eventually agreed to The Gazette's request and revealed the donor was Mike Steinhoff, a 1978 graduate of Craig High School and president of Rhyme Business Products.

The district, responding to a Gazette request, provided an analysis of Rhyme's business with the district, which started in 2001.

Contracts with Rhyme over the past five years were for $82,346 in 2008-09, $36,244 in 2009-10, $160,426 in 2010-11, $142,429 in 2011-12, $359,018 in 2012-13 and $405,493 in 2013-14.

A narrative names Rhyme a “strategic partner” of the district and lauds changes Rhyme and the district have made to lower costs of printing, copying, faxing and scanning.

Since 2010, Rhyme's contracts with the district have been through bids handled by the National Joint Powers Alliance, a purchasing consortium that serves governments and companies across the country.

Steinhoff told The Gazette that the donation came from his company's charitable foundation.

Rhyme does business with about 40 school districts in Wisconsin, Steinhoff said, and the company focuses its charitable giving on the needs of children in a variety of communities.

 But Rhyme, which employs quite a few Janesville natives, has a soft spot for Janesville, Steinhoff said.

Steinhoff said he liked Schulte's outside-the-box thinking in trying to grow the district's enrollment by recruiting foreign students. He said he sees school districts that are struggling from declining enrollments and liked how Schulte's initiative resembled what a business would do to grow its customer base.

Steinhoff said his company donates as much as is fiscally responsible “because I really feel strongly that what goes around comes around,” but he said it's impossible to say “yes” to every request.

Murray, meanwhile, said he doesn't believe any business has been granted anything in exchange for making a donation, but he thinks it's possible officials might be inclined to give a business some advantage without consciously thinking about it.

It might be time for the board to take a fresh look at its policy that governs how the district decides that a donation is appropriate or not, Murray, said, adding that the board might want to have final say on larger donations.

This story was revised Aug. 13, 2013, to reflect the following correction:


Figures showing the amount Janesville School District pays Rhyme Business Products for its services were incorrect in an earlier version of this story.

The figures published reflected all the district's copier and related costs, not just those with Rhyme.

The correct figures for Rhyme only are: $82,346 in 2008-09, $36,244 in 2009-10, $160,426 in 2010-11, $142,429 in 2011-12, $359,018 in 2012-13 and $405,493 in 2013-14.

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