When two Beaufort County principals and one school district administrator visited schools in China recently, one thing stood out: The students were driven.
Even with 40 or more students in a class, they were diligent. Hilton Head Island High School principal Amanda O'Nan said students told her that after spending about eight hours at school, they would do another four hours of homework and dedicate Sundays to studying.
"We've got a lot of driven, hardworking kids," O'Nan said. "But 100 percent of the kids I saw (in China) are like that."
O'Nan, Robert Smalls Middle and Intermediate School principal Denise Smith and district instructional services chief Dereck Rhoads went on the weeklong trip as part of the district's partnership with the College Board, a nonprofit education organization, and Hanban, an institution affiliated with the Chinese government that provides Chinese-language and cultural-teaching resources worldwide.
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The two groups have helped the district find native Chinese speakers to teach Mandarin Chinese to students at Hilton Head Island and Broad River elementary schools during the past three years.
This year, Mandarin classes have been added at Robert Smalls Middle, Hilton Head Middle and Hilton Head High schools. Rhoads said about 400 of the district's nearly 20,000 students are enrolled this year in Chinese language classes, which are funded through federal grants.
Beaufort County educators have made similar trips to Chinese schools and met with Hanban and other education officials in recent years. This year, they traveled to the Jiangsu Province on China's eastern coast and toured schools in Suzhou and Naging.
The district paid to fly Rhodes, O'Nan and Smith to New York City -- about $1,000 in all, most of it from professional-development funds, according to Rhodes. Hanban paid for the rest. About 400 educators from across the U.S. also traveled to China on the same Hanban-sponsored trip.
According to the Program for International Student Assessment, students in Hong Kong and Shanghai outranked U.S. students in literacy, math and science assessments in 2009, the most recent data available.
All three Beaufort County educators said they were surprised at how large the classes were and how little technology was in the classrooms. Most of the schools had computer labs, but students weren't using them daily.
O'Nan said she was preparing a presentation for Hilton Head High teachers and might talk to several classes about her trip.
Smith said she became a partner with Suzjo No. 16 Middle School, which she visited, to create a pen-pal program with Robert Smalls students. She hopes in the next few years her students will apply for a summer travel program to China. She said learning Chinese, the most widely spoken language in the world, is vital for her students.
"It's critical," she said. "It will give them exponential opportunities. ... We need to prepare them for the future."