Eighteen students and two teachers from China spent two weeks this summer in Madison County as part of a first of its kind exchange program.

Superintendent Dr. Allen McCannon has worked on this project for several years, according to Brittan Ayers, Madison County School System’s secondary curriculum director, and McCannon went to China himself to establish the agreements and details of the program.

While there, he was approached by ACEP (American Cultural Exchange Programs) about building an exchange program between a Chinese school district and Madison County.

Following Dr. McCannon’s visit, a delegation of Chinese education and finance officials from the Binzhou Economic and Technological Development Zone in China came to Madison County in the spring. They toured Madison County’s schools and met with leaders and teachers about the possibility of becoming a “sister school district.”

During this visit, Dr. McCannon and the superintendent in Binzhou reached a “friendly agreement” about a short-term summer exchange program, Ayers said.

In early June, five Madison County teachers; Andy Felt, Melody Christian, Joe Moore, Lori Ober and Quowanna Mattox, traveled to China to visit the Binzhou School District.

Ayers pointed out that the trip was financed entirely by the Binzhou Economic and Technological Development Zone and the teachers stayed with host families in China.

During the two weeks they were in China, they observed and taught classes, interacted with teachers and leaders and learned more about the culture. They also met some of the students who would be traveling to Madison County in July for the summer exchange program.

“The five teachers who traveled to China, along with Sonia Coile, played an integral role in planning the camp activities for the exchange program,” Ayers noted.

The Binzhou school district implemented an application process and from that selected 18 students and two teachers to travel to the U.S.

Though the trip was financed by the school system in China, the Madison County Board of Education did set aside a small amount of money to fund the teacher stipends and camp supplies and incidentals for the summer exchange program.

In addition, both Chinese and Madison County students were able to participate in the School Nutrition Department’s Summer Feeding Program for breakfast and lunch, which provided free meals.

Fifteen host families also volunteered to provide the Chinese students with lodging, meals and after-school activities.

The school system hopes to continue to grow the summer exchange program, as well as the possibility of other exchange activities in the future.

One of those is working on the opportunity for Madison County students to visit China in a “short-term exchange program,” possibly as early as spring break, Ayers said.

Other future projects that are being explored include the possibility for longer-term (such a semester, or even a year) where county teachers would teach in China, while Chinese teachers taught in Madison County. In addition, school officials are in the exploration stages for a longer-term student exchange program where Chinese students could be able to participate in a year-long study abroad program here.

McCannon said Ayers not only helped to coordinate the visit to China, but planned the entire camp program for both the Chinese and Madison County students while they were here. “She did an outstanding job,” McCannon said.

While here the students visited Jubilee Partners in Comer, Moon Farms, Watson Mill State Park, UGA, Memorial Park Zoo and other local places of interest.

“The Madison County/Binzhou Exchange Program has been a wonderful experience for the children of our school system as well as my family,” teacher Andy Felt said. “Five teachers (including Felt) participated in the teacher exchange portion of the program for 17 days in June, and then 18 students and two teachers from Binzhou, China came (here) soon afterwards for two weeks.”

Felt said Ayers organized the day camp for the Chinese students and the children of the host families where students took Chinese and English language classes and computer/robotics programming classes in the morning, and had science, sports, and other activities such as visits to local farms and parks in the afternoons.

“When our teachers visited China, we stayed with very hospitable host families and taught in their schools,” Felt said. “The students there were very excited to meet us and were eager to learn about life in America, while we were able to learn about the Chinese education system. We taught thousands of students while we were there, with each of us visiting several classrooms a day and sometimes groups as large as 400. I conducted a few science lessons for 7th graders, but mostly taught students in grades 1 through 3 about wildlife native to Georgia and other aspects of American culture. We also had the opportunity to sightsee a little, including a visit to Tienanmen Square and the Great Wall.”

Once the Chinese children came to Madison County, Felt and his family hosted two 15-year old Chinese boys, Li Ruilin and Kang Hoachen. “This was a great experience for all of us,” Felt said. “All of our host families did a great job at making the students feel welcome, and the students from both countries had a great time while learning. We hope to see this program continue and grow in the coming years.”

Felt said a group of Madison County students will have the opportunity to visit China in the spring of 2017.

Phyllis and Lee Dickinson and their grandson, Eddie Lester, an eighth grader at MCMS, also hosted two of the Chinese boys in their home during the two-week camp. The boy’s American names were “Peter” (Yichao Su) and “John” (Yansong Zhang) and both celebrated their 13th birthdays during their stay with the family. Eddie also had his own Chinese name “Lee Jioung.”

“We had birthday cakes for them, but they weren’t exactly sure what they were,” Mrs. Dickinson said, smiling. Eddie, who is also 13, said he enjoyed hanging out with the two boys, who were already friends and classmates in China. “It was awesome, getting to know them, and it was also awesome getting accepted by the (exchange) program,” he said.

Eddie said he’d like to visit China at some point to see what it’s like over there. He said both boys were often spoke of how “green” it is here (“Wow, so many trees!”) and that they noted that the air was much cleaner. “They said their eyes didn’t get red here,” Eddie said.

Mrs. Dickinson noted that they are from the city of Shandong, where there is often poor air quality from industry.

Though communication was a constant issue, she said it got somewhat easier as time went on and she managed to ask them if they were homesick. She said they told her they really weren’t since they don’t usually see their families except every two weeks.

She said the boys go to school for two weeks straight, then go home for a visit. They attend school from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., with a two-hour break at noon each day. Eddie said they told him they are expected to study two hours after their school day ends at 10 p.m., then go to sleep in their dorm-like rooms, only to repeat the process the next day beginning at 6 a.m. “Their schools there are very rigorous,” he said. “Peter told me he’d rather be here because it is cleaner and more fun.”

Eddie also said he learned from the boys and from camp that school there is very competitive and that if they fail tests to get into high school they are “out” and have to find work as a blue collar worker in a factory. The same applies for college; if they fail to pass college entrance exams, they must drop out and enter the work force.

“So they really have to work hard if they want to have a choice of a career and go to college,” Eddie said.

Mrs. Dickinson said they were a joy to have and had impeccable manners. “They were good sports and very quiet and polite,” she said. “Every evening after our meal, they would ask if they could go for a walk, I think they enjoyed the quiet of the area.”

She said she admires how well they handled the daunting task of assimilating in a strange country, with not only limited understanding of English, but also being met with all the strange customs and foods they had to learn about. “At first they couldn’t eat with a spoon, knife or fork because they were only familiar with chopsticks, but they kept at it and learned how,” she said.

Eddie said they often referred to their phones for translation help.

For example, the day before they were to leave, they came to Dickinson with a request to go “shopping.” She said she had no idea what they wanted to go shopping for, so she took them to the Tanger Outlet Stores in Commerce. “They walked in a store or two and shook their heads ‘no,’” she said. Then they got together and consulted their phones and finally showed her the word, “souvenir.”

“I was thinking where could we get them souvenirs, so I took them to the truck stop there,” she said, smiling. “Boy, did they have a good time. They shopped and shopped.”

Both she and Eddie said they miss the boys. “We really enjoyed their company,” Eddie said.

Cindy Nash, who also serves on the board of education, agrees that the China exchange program was good, not only for the Chinese students, but good for her family as well, particularly her daughter, 14-year old Hallie.

“I think it’s made her, and all of us, more aware of the world,” she said. “It was just a really cool thing for our family to do.”

Nash’s family hosted 15-year old Cathy. “It was awkward for everybody at first, of course, but everybody got more comfortable with each other as time went on” she said. “Now we really miss her.”

Nash said Hallie has been in touch with Cathy, and the two have exchanged pictures, since Cathy arrived back home in China and that all of them plan to keep up with each other. Nash said she’d love to have her come stay with them again.

Communication was an issue in their home as well, but that too became easier as the days went on. “We wanted her to feel comfortable and to see and do the things she wanted to do, but we also wanted her to know it was OK for her to say ‘no,’” Nash said. “She seemed to really want to do everything…she said she loved swimming and we have a pool, so she enjoyed that.”

Hallie accompanied Cathy to the camp program every day and Cathy also accompanied Hallie to soccer practice. “They were together pretty much 24/7,” Nash said.

At first, she said the two girls pretty much stayed to themselves at camp, but she noticed that as the days wore on, both became a lot more interactive with the other kids at camp, both American and Chinese.

“Hallie would come home telling me about several new Chinese friends she made and the circle got bigger every day,” she said. “She made a ton of new friends.”

And the change in Cathy was also quite marked, Nash note. “It was hard to believe how she changed as she got comfortable with the entire family,” she said. “We really hated to let her go.”

In addition to learning some of each other’s language, Cathy and the Nashes also sometimes used a program called “We Chat,” that translated words for them.

“The best way to sum it up was that it was awesome, exhausting and kind of cool,” Nash said.

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