PEYTON, Colo. – Displaying nametags and smiles Aug. 7, a group of students in Colorado Springs greeted teens arriving from almost 6,000 miles away.
As 17 students representing five junior high schools in Fujiyoshida, Japan, entered Skyview Middle School in Falcon School District 49, nearly 20 eighth graders welcomed them. Many attempted cordial Japanese greetings, as several of their guests snapped photos.
“We wanted our students to have an international experience,” said social studies teacher Gary Heaston, who coordinated the event for the eighth graders at Skyview Middle School.
“Since we couldn’t go to Japan, we brought Japan here,” said Heaston. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to learn how we’re more alike than we’re different.”
The eighth graders described their art and physical education classrooms, and then science and language arts activities. After exploring a math class, they gathered in the school’s cafeteria, choosing from sandwiches and pizzas, fruits and salads, juice and milk.
During lunch, 15-year-old Nanami Watanabe said she had hoped to learn how U.S. schools differ from Japan. She now says the atmospheres are much different. U.S. students are less restricted; they’re moving around and doing their own thing.
“Where they’re from, the students stay in one classroom and the teachers move around,” said Robin Lawrentz, who volunteered to assist the cultural exchange. After graduating from college, he worked as a teacher in Fujiyoshida’s schools.
Lawrentz moved last week to Colorado Springs from Fujiyoshida, where he had served as city coordinator for international relations. He says the two communities share similar mountainous landmarks – Colorado Springs with Pikes Peak, Fujiyoshida with Mount Fuji.
The two communities formed a sister city relationship in 1962, and he’s a former chairperson for that international connection.
Sister cities recognize their similarities, and converge their citizens and organizations into friendly and meaningful exchanges, including long-term projects of mutual interest. Fujiyoshida began a youth-centric program 25 years ago.
The program connects junior high school students in Fujiyoshida, mostly student council presidents, with teens in Colorado Springs. This year, Heaston proposed a different direction: connect students from both countries within a public school.
Located in northeast Colorado Springs, District 49 ends summer break much sooner than the city’s other districts. Opting for two-week fall, winter and spring breaks, its community starts classes in early August, in time to support the sister city youth program.
With Heaston’s coordination, Skyview Middle School was selected as a new venue for the program, its students as classroom docents. Principal Cathy Tinucci said the international experience enhances science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.
“We want to broaden our approach to STEM education, teach kids to have a worldwide appreciation for other cultures and experiences,” said Tinucci. “It’s possible, at some point in their lives, they may work with them overseas.”
Flanked by laboratory flasks and beakers in a dimmed science room, eighth grader Cherish Bass struck a match to exhibit a science experiment that tests for chemical characteristics. Her school’s visitors watched each flame’s colorful reaction, capturing photos of the action.
“I was expecting them to be a little shy, but they’re pretty outgoing, excited,” said Bass, 13. “You can tell they’re interested. They probably understand more than they’re able to say.”
As junior high school third graders in Japan, equivalent to ninth graders in the United States, they averaged three years of English studies.
Watanabe says she discovered pleasantly forthright attitudes in the United States. She’s eager to explain her recent U.S. school-based interactions to friends in Japan. They taught her to appreciate a need to act straightforward in classrooms, more proactive, she said.
“I’ve learned about a different culture,” said Bass, during the morning’s culminating question-and-answer forum. “They’re asking us questions, and we’re asking them questions. I’ve learned that they’re interested in a lot of what we’re interested in.”