Highland High School Principal Dana Addis leans against a table on the fifth floor of Infocision Stadium at the University of Akron. He’s chaperoning a tour of the campus for 15 students from Nanwu High School, Highland’s sister school in Guangzhou, China.
But he’s thinking about his own students back at Highland.
“Our kids are going to be in a very interconnected world,” he said. “This is a great two-week example of how their lives have intertwined.”
The Chinese students have spent the past two weeks touring the Akron-Cleveland area, watching a Cavaliers game and receiving instruction at Highland High School, where Mandarin Chinese has been taught for the past five years. Addis said the district plans to offer an Advanced Placement section of the foreign language next year.
It’s one of many expansions planned as students throughout Ohio’s education system get a little closer to a country halfway around the world.
The district has hosted foreign exchange students from Germany, Vietnam and China in the past, but never have they welcomed such a large group from one country before. And it’s no coincidence that group is from China.
Chinese is the fastest growing foreign language in primary and secondary education in Ohio, according to the Department of Education. China also is the largest foreign population in many colleges and universities. It surpassed Saudi Arabia and India this year with more than 300 Chinese students in the University of Akron’s international studies department.
Officials at UA and Highland recognize that Chinese students are taking advantage of partnerships between the world’s two largest economies.
“These guys start learning English in grade school,” said Holly Harris Bane, associate vice president of Strategic Initiatives and Engagement at UA.
That puts a demand on institutions and educators to encourage students to explore the Chinese culture and language. Programs are designed to foster relationships, cultivate knowledge and recruit students.
UA hosts a weekly video conference with its Chinese sister school, Hanen University. About 25 UA students and up to 100 Hanen students talk about politics, global warming, international economics and myriad other global issues.
UA also hosts China Week each year in March, when 5,000 faculty, students and members of the community celebrate and explore the Chinese culture. Professors fold that culture into their teachings that week, and the university expands offerings that semester to include programs with an emphasis on China.
An exchange of ideas at UA includes inviting scholars from other countries. More than half of those scholars in any given month travel from China.
UA is also a host for one of the nation’s 75 Confucius Institutes. At the UA institute, at least 120 students study the Chinese culture and language.
At Highland, Addis plans to send an annual invitation to the district’s sister school.
Participant Jiyang “Andy” Fan, 15, said he learned everything he knows about basketball from watching Kobe Bryant on TV.
“He grabbed the basketball and shot before he entered the home,” said Donna King. She’s the mother of two boys attending Highland schools and the host of two of the boys visiting from China. One of those boys is Fan, who can’t find time to play basketball in China because of the emphasis his culture places on studies.
“Many students have to give up their own interests,” said Tao “Vivian” Huang, an English teacher at Highland’s sister school in China.
Huang, one of three chaperones from Nanwu High School, said it’s common for test results, parents and the community to decide a student’s career path. The pressure of making that decision sometimes falls on the student, but they lack support.
“Our kids will face all these confusions, but they don’t have professional guidance counselors like [American students] do,” she said.
School guidance counselors are uncommon in Chinese high schools, where students are thrust into one of two disciplines in 11th grade: art or science. That distinction is often forced by the Gaokoa, a standardized national test that Addis can’t help but relate to Ohio’s recent implementation of a unified curriculum under the Common Core.
Preparation for China’s test, Huang and her students say, trumps the personal interests of students like Fan and Xuanxuan “Clovis” Tang, who would play the piano if it didn’t interrupt her studies.
“In China, they think that’s not good for students,” Tang said.
Tang and her classmates chose “American” names from cartoons, reality television shows and loose translations of their own names. One student coined himself Patrick after watching Sponge Bob Squarepants; another picked Megatron after looking at a Transformers logo.
Reality television and pop culture also prepared them for the experience.
Huang, who is married with a child back in China, had an inclination that the wealthy, relatively crime-free Highland community would be swarming with backstabbing suburban mothers typecast for Desperate Housewives.
That’s not what she found. Huang said American and Chinese families hold similar traditional values.
At least that’s what she can say of her experience staying with foster families in Highland, where the Chinese students worry that America’s sugar-laden meals will make them fat.
Bonnie Zidd, one of those foster parents, is learning as much from watching her daughter, a junior at Highland, interact with her Chinese counterpart. The girls aren’t shy. They have a lot in common, she says, with one questionable difference.
“I don’t know that my daughter would be that open if she went to China.”
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.