Horry County Schools officials to study educational practices in China

vgrooms@thesunnews.comOctober 10, 2012 

Four Horry County Schools officials will head to China next month as part of a program where they will learn about the country’s educational system while establishing connections meant to reach into local classrooms.

Superintendent Cindy Elsberry, school board members Harvey Eisner and Karen McIlrath, and Melissa Schamel, district coordinator of English for Speakers of Other Languages, will travel Nov. 7-15 as part of the 2012 Chinese Bridge Delegation, a group of K-12 and higher education leaders from around the country who will be guests at China’s Hanban Institute. The program is designed to help educators start or strengthen their own Chinese programs and partnerships.

“Our vision in Horry County Schools is to prepare our students to be competitive beyond South Carolina and to be able to compete around the nation,” said Elsberry, who said learning a second language, as they do in other countries, gives students another advantage. “We’re becoming a global society, and we must understand the competition.”

Elsberry said her interest in China began when district leadership teams studied the country’s educational initiatives, but it was further piqued last fall when she and other district officials heard Yong Zhao, author of “Catching Up or Leading the Way,” speak at a conference. She said Zhao compared education between China and the United States, and said the Chinese are interested in the creativity and imaginative thinking found in America.

There also have been local connections made with China through the Myrtle Beach City Council and Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, Elsberry said, so it was logical to make a connection through the schools. She cited Microsoft statistics that say there are more children in China who are honors students than there are children in America. With that country moving toward being a world leader, she said it is beneficial to learn more about their system and the possibility of bringing Mandarin into schools in the district.

“What I want to see is their style of teaching and learning, what models they use, how they conduct their classrooms and how they are teaching critical thinking,” said Elsberry, who said she also is interested in the techniques used by Chinese math teachers, as well as how English is taught.

HCS students currently can study Spanish, French and German in school, and those languages, as well as Japanese, Mandarin and Latin, also are offered at various levels, including honors and advanced placement, through the state’s virtual offerings or those that the district is able to purchase from other virtual schools. Teal Britton, district spokeswoman, said virtual classes allow a small number of students – or even just one – to take a course even when there is not enough interest to justify adding a teaching position for a full class.

The group will fly into Beijing and will be able to visit sites such as the Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China. Participants also will be divided into smaller groups and dispersed to different areas of the country, where they will visit schools and talk with educators and students.

The cost for the trip is $900 per person for the nine-day stay, which covers everything – food, hotels, travel - except airfare to the departure point in New York. Altogether, the cost per person comes in under $1,300 each.

McIlrath, who represents District 2, grew up in San Francisco, which has the largest Chinese population outside China, and said she has visited the country twice, in 1985 with college students and professors, and in 2007 with her father. She said while her first trip showed her the stereotypical China, with everyone on bicycles wearing Chairman Mao uniforms, the scene was vastly different in 2007. She said Shanghai looked more like Los Angeles, with freeways and people chatting on cell phones, although much of the vast country is still extremely underdeveloped.

“It’s quite a country of contrasts,” McIlrath said. “To be a tourist and now go back as a guest of the country is so exciting.”

Elsberry said the group will be taking equipment so they can track their journeys via Google Maps, video at their different locations and conference to create a travel experience for students back home who are studying complementary lessons. She said she also expects technology to allow the partnerships they form in China to result in the same type of exchanges between Chinese classrooms and those in Horry County.

Elsberry said that while budget is always a consideration, she would eventually like to be able to go beyond the romance languages and offer classes in languages that are spoken by up-and-coming economic leaders, such as Mandarin, Hindi and Arabic, which would be valuable to students who want to enter politics, finance and technology. She said taking the International Baccalaureate programs, which are offered at Aynor and Socastee high schools, down through the middle and elementary school levels would also provide the opportunity for language immersion programs.

McIlrath said she is excited about what future partnerships could mean for area students, many of whom grow up in the county and have families that have never really moved past where their daily life takes them.

“When you grow up like that, you don’t think about life outside our county,” McIlrath said. “This could broaden minds and help students think, ‘What could I be missing that I want to know about?’ not just about China, but about the world and opportunities beyond our borders. If we play our cards right when we get back, the payoff for Horry County’s schools will be exponential.”

Contact VICKI GROOMS at 443-2401 or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_VickiGrooms.

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