Sharing new cultures, experiences

2 schools, in the Netherlands and Annapolis, work toward a student exchange program

October 28, 2007|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,Special to the Sun

One highlight of Dutch teacher Kees van Kemenade's first trip to the United States was a visit to Harpers Ferry, W.Va., site of the 1859 abolitionist raid by John Brown. Van Kemenade always tells his students about it during American history classes.

"To be in a spot where something took place makes all the difference in the world," he said. "It all comes alive."

Van Kemenade wants to include a trip to Harpers Ferry if he can set up a student exchange with Annapolis Area Christian School's upper school.

In an age of increasing economic globalization, students need exposure to other cultures, said Lori Dykstra, assistant principal of the upper school, who helped organize his visit to the Severn campus with a colleague last week.

"We're trying to prepare kids for what it's going to be like in 2020," she said. "Our kids are going to have to interact with people from all over the world all the time."

Initially, the schools would set up a two-week exchange with hopes for longer stays in the future, Dykstra said.

Annapolis Area Christian already includes some international travel in its curriculum. Foreign language students take trips to Spain or France at the end of each school year. Last year, some students participated in a new mission program in Santiago, Chile.

Dykstra was interested in expanding international studies at the school, so she went online to search for exchanges through the Fulbright Program, which provides funding and promotes exchanges for students and professionals.

The Fulbright Program matched her school with Dr. Mollercollege, a high school in Waalwijk, Netherlands. The Christian school with Roman Catholic roots was looking for a school in a semi-suburban area near historical sites.

The Fulbright Program hosted van Kemenade, his colleague, Jack Didden, and eight teachers from other Dutch schools for the week of Oct. 14 in Amherst, Mass. The teachers spent the week visiting high schools to learn about American secondary education. They traveled to their prospective exchange schools for the second week.

Officials from both schools have discovered that they share other similarities and connections. Annapolis Area Christian bases some of its Christian teachings on the philosophy of Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch theologian and statesman.

"This came as a nice surprise," van Kemenade said. "It struck me that his influence has come as far as America."

Another nice surprise: Dykstra's grandparents are Dutch immigrants.

The similarities made the Dutch visitors feel at ease with their hosts, said Didden, chairman of the bilingual department at Dr. Mollercollege.

"I think we made a perfect choice," he said.

Although the two institutions structure their school day similarly, Dutch schools -- public and private -- are funded by the government. Dutch students are separated into vocational or academic tracks based on test scores they take after graduating from primary school.

Students on the vocational track graduate from a trade school by the time they are 18. Students on the academic track pick between a traditional and classical education to prepare for university life. All high school students are taught in English, but they must also take another foreign language. Students are expected to be trilingual once they graduate.

"We feel like we're behind the times here," Dykstra said.

Dutch schools also do not have student government or sponsor after-school activities. Sports, music and other extracurricular activities are sponsored by private organizations off the school grounds.

The Dutch teachers seemed particularly interested to learn about American students' government, Dykstra said. Annapolis Area Christian, which has an enrollment of 490, uses a prefect system with seniors running segments of student activity.

"I just never really thought how different our worlds could be," said Kristie Barlow, a senior who serves as the service prefect, coordinating volunteer activities for students.

Seniors such as Barlow might have an opportunity to visit Dr. Mollercollege. Annapolis Area Christian schedules its international trips in June after classes end. Dutch schools are in session until July.

Caitlin Young, the head prefect at Annapolis Area Christian, went to Spain two years ago, but she is more excited about a trip to the Netherlands because she would be able to live with Dutch families.

"That's what I'm looking forward to on this trip because you really get to interact with the culture," she said.

Didden said the most important lesson that students can gain from an international exchange is that people might do things differently, but their hopes and desires are basically the same.

"People are people everywhere," Didden said.

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