Elmwood will welcome Chinese delegation in Spring
Students across the globe take part in exchange programs every year to experience living and going to school in another country. But it's rare that a superintendent and his son share a closeup look at the education system of another country, especially one like China.
"The Discover China Program was something I thought would be interesting because I always wanted to go to China to experience what they have as far as education, and it would be something valuable to the school district as well," said Elmwood School District 4K-5 principal/Superintendent Dr. Paul Blanford. "I also chose to go a week early rather than follow their timeline so that my son, Tanner, who is a senior this year and very interested in traveling abroad, and I could go together and see the sights before the program started.
"That was the first time they had ever taken students along. They were the most popular part of our delegation while we were over there since the students and administration wanted to know what they thought about their schools. It was a very positive experience."
Blanford joined the National Superintendent Certification Program - Midwest Cohort for the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) last year and felt like being part of the delegation to China would be a great way to enhance the Elmwood School District through his experiences.
"Along with my hopes to enrich the knowledge and experiences that I had, I also wanted to see about getting a sister school for our schools," Blanford said. "Through visiting with folks over there, I established two sister schools for our district. Since I'm also the elementary school principal, I wanted to make sure I was involved with the other schools as well, so we established one with an experimental kindergarten school and another with a primary school."
The two schools Blanford established Sister School status with included Jin Shan No. 2 Primary School in Shanghai and Jinhu Experimental Kindergarten in Jinhu County, near Nanjing. A delegation from Jin Shan No. 2 will be making the trip to Wisconsin next spring to learn about the United States and experience life in an American school.
"They really want to come to our school, which is amazing considering that a school in China wants to come all the way to a school in Elmwood, Wisconsin," Blanford said. "The plans are to have the visit in April, from the 15th through the 21st. The plan is for 15 fourth and fifth grade students, along with three teachers and their principal, to come spend the week with us and stay with host families in Elmwood."
Currently, the plans for the Chinese delegation's week in America include visiting a dairy and cheese factory, visiting Crystal Cave, and hopefully visiting the University of Wisconsin-Stout to learn about STEM education at the postsecondary level. The delegation will also visit the Twin Cities to see the Underwater World at the Mall of America, the Bell Museum at the University of Minnesota, in addition to attending five days of school at Elmwood Elementary.
"I wouldn't say there is anything I saw over there that I want to bring here, because I think what we do here is better and we afford our students more personalized approaches," Blanford said. "However, I think the experience of having the Chinese students come here — and we are also invited to go over there in 2019 — is great. That being said, what does it tell you when China is trying to change to and looking at what we do here? They are looking to utilize some of the approaches we have and learn from us."
Observations from China
Blanford and Tanner were part of a delegation comprised of seven school district superintendents, one high school principal and one teacher from the United States. According to Blanford, Wawasee School District (Indiana) Superintendent Tom Edington also brought along his son, Ryan. The only other delegate from Wisconsin was a superintendent from Beecher-Dunbar-Pembine School District.
During the delegation's visit, the group spent time at many different schools in Beijing, Jinhu County and Nanjing.
"Interestingly, the smallest school district that we visited was in Jinhu County ... and they had 3,200 students in their district," Blanford said.
Along with the traditional Chinese schools — which are highly regimented, rote memory schools — there are also experimental schools, which are basically American-style schools.
"Contrary to what is published and talked about in the media, they are trying to be like us. They are trying to be the best, but they have realized that their system of education, although kids test very well, they are lacking in creativity and other areas like that," Blanford said. "Their experimental schools are very interested in understanding how we do things and adapting those things to their way of teaching."
Another observation Blanford made while touring schools was that high school (grades 10-12) is not free like it is in the United States.
"They have what they call their compulsory school, which is first through ninth grade, and their high school (10-12) is like going to college for them. Parents have to pay for that, the government doesn't pay for high school in most cases. And kindergarten was optional," Blanford said.
College is also something that most students in China don't get to experience, at least not in China. Blanford said that Chinese colleges are selective and only have a certain number of slots available for new students each year, which means only the top students get selected.
"Just because they pay to go to high school doesn't mean they will go to college. For many students, it is easier to go to another country to go to college than to go to college in China," Blanford said.
In addition, Chinese schools don't include special education students in their regular schools. However, Blanford said that Chinese administrators were interested in how American schools incorporate special education students in their school.
"I was very impressed with their fine arts that I got to see while I was over there. It was awe-inspiring to see what their kindergarten kids could do as far as drama, singing and performing," Blanford said. "My impression of China was changed dramatically from everything I saw through the delegation tours and my time spent visiting places with my son the week before the program started. It was truly a great experience."
Although the AASA delegation was going see a lot of schools during their visit, along with a few tourist locations as well, Blanford wanted to spend more time with his son. So they decided to fly to China a week early and spend time touring.
"With myself being busy at the end of the school year ... I told (Tanner) he could take a week to plan out everything and make all the arrangements, since he's definitely old enough and tech savvy enough to do it. So he got our plane tickets, our hotel reservations, all the travel for that week and the places we were going to visit," Blanford said. "It was flawless and it was nice to get over there and have everything planned out. When we got there, he had done so much research that he was extremely familiar with everything through the magic of the internet."
The pair traveled through China by bus, bullet train and sleeper train.
"It took us four hours to go the 900 miles from Shanghai to Xi'an, then it took us 12 hours to do the same distance from Xi'an to Beijing. And that was an experience in itself," Blanford said. "We saw the Nanjing Road and Bund, the Terracotta Warriors, the Muslim Quarters and the Summer Palace."
With all the sights Blanford and his son experienced during their tour, Blanford expected Tanner's favorite part of the trip to be one of the national landmarks or places the pair visited. However, Tanner's answer surprised and delighted Blanford.
"I asked Tanner what was his favorite thing that he took away from the trip, and I thought he'd say something like the Great Wall or the Terracotta Warriors, but he said visiting the schools," Blanford said. "He very much enjoyed visiting the schools. He said he just learned so much from the visits and seeing how they did things there. He mentioned in many ways, that he was more appreciative of what we have here, mostly because of the sheer number of people in their schools. He was very impressed with the architecture."