It was a "trip of a lifetime" for three Hamden school administrators who spent the April vacation as the guests of Chinese educators curious as to the American way of learning.
Supt. of Schools Fran Rabinowitz, Asst. Supt. Marie Jordan-Whitney and West Woods School Principal Barbara Nana made the trip after Nana was contacted by a group of students and educators from China two years ago who were in the U.S. and looking for a high-performing elementary school to check out.
"They visited after school got out and had a wonderful day of learning what it is like to be an American," Nana told the Board of Education recently during a presentation on their trip. "It was such a success that we continued to correspond and formed a partnership."
That partnership led to the invitation for the April trip, Rabinowitz said, which was paid for by the American Education Alliance in Pasadena, Calif.
The Hamden school district "paid absolutely nothing for it," Rabinowitz said.
"It was the experience of a lifetime, especially in terms of education," Rabinowitz said. In that week's time they took six planes and one bullet train, she said, and rarely got any rest.
"In a week we really did not stop," she said. "There was not a whole lot of sleeping but it was worth it."
As part of the state Department of Education, she had been invited to go to China several times but declined, Rabinowitz said. "This appealed to me because we got to go into the schools," she said.
They were treated like royalty, the women said. At one point she noticed a Hummer limo outside their hotel, Rabinowitz said. "I wondered who was here that who have that," she said, and it turned out it was there for them, as was a sign outside one of the schools they visited that read "Warmly Welcome American Education Experts."
"We went to a lot of formal presentations and dinners that lasted two and a half hours," Jordan-Whitney said. "We ate a lot of things we didn't recognize."
What amazed them most was the size of the schools and the classrooms, she said. A school campus could have several thousand students and it was common to see classrooms of 50 students, she said. And elementary school teachers teach only one subject, she said, rather than all subjects as they do here.
The school day runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., with a break from 12 to 2 p.m., she said, and teachers teach three classes a day. During the break, the students go home, generally to their grandparent's, for lunch, she said. Family members tend to provide child care rather than day care providers, she said.
As early as elementary school, students chose elective subjects, Nana said, that could include learning to pour and serve tea, paper cutting, calligraphy, gardening and arts and crafts. "The arts are highly revered," she said.
Both students and teacher wear uniforms provided by the school, Rabinowitz said, and each school votes on the type of uniform and colors they want to wear. The student's behavior was exemplary, she said, and educators are held in high esteem.
At dinners, no one would begin to eat until she did, Rabinowitz said. "Trust me, that doesn't happen here," she joked.
While most of their time was spent in the schools, they did have some time for sightseeing, Jordan-Whitney said. "There wasn't a lot of time to be a tourist," she said, but what they did see was "gorgeous."
The Forbidden City "was absolutely amazing," Rabinowitz said. "It felt like we were walking through history."
There were, too, some familiar sights, she said. "We were thrilled to see McDonalds and Starbucks," she said. "Some things are universal."
The three were showered with gifts wherever they went, so much so that "we had to go buy another suitcase to bring home all the gifts," Rabinowitz said.
The trip was such a success that there are already plans for Chinese students to visit Spring Glen School before the school year ends, she said, and there could be more trips in the future.
"They are very serious about having our students go over there," she said.
"There is nothing like visiting there to see what is going on," she said, and some of the things they saw could be considered here.
"I would like to explore elementary teachers teaching one subject," she said. "It was a phenomenal experience and hopefully it will add to the richness of our curriculum because of it."