Chinese cultural exchange builds understanding in RPS 205

Cecelia Fumo, a seventh grader at Thurgood Marshall School, is surrounded by students in China’s Shiyan School during a cultural exchange program.

The term world-class education took on greater meaning this summer for a group of Rockford Public Schools’ staff and students who traveled to China on a cultural exchange program.

Erin Garner, who will be a senior next month at Auburn High School, was part of a group that visited Shiyan High School in China’s Liaoning Province June 28-July 7. Liaoning borders North Korea and the Yellow Sea.

Like the other local participants, Garner said the experience challenged her assumptions.

“For some reason I had it stuck in my head that because Chinese people don’t have what we have in America, they wouldn’t be as happy as Americans. I’m so glad that I was proven wrong,” said Garner, who is in the Creative and Performing Arts Program at Auburn. “There may be differences in culture and world view, but when it gets down to it, people are people. People want to experience happiness. People want to be loved. People want to give love.”

The International Cultural Exchange program was sponsored by the China-based Modern Counseling International.  The trip followed a January visit by Shiyan students to Auburn and Thurgood Marshall schools in RPS 205. Other district schools are exploring similar partnerships with Chinese schools with the goal of international experiences, global understanding and empathy.

In addition to Garner, the local group that went to China included R.J. Kuligowski, Auburn academy coach; Susan Fumo, the district’s Executive Director of School Improvement; and her children Jackson Fumo, a sophomore at Auburn, and Cecelia Fumo, a seventh grader at Thurgood Marshall School. Both students are in the gifted program. The trip was financed through private pay and scholarships.

Jackson Fumo noted the stark differences in education. Classrooms at the Shiyan school had 50-55 students, about twice as large as those at a typical American high school. Students stayed in one classroom while the teachers rotated classrooms. School began at 7 a.m. and ended at 9 p.m., although there were short breaks during the day and meal breaks. Students needed to comprehend the material or be left behind, Jackson Fumo said, and teachers were not the problem-solving resources they are here.

Even so, according to Kuligowski, there was a strong sense of common bond.

“What I saw wasn’t communism. It was more community-ism. Everything was done together. Every meal was a shared meal. We in the U.S. are very large on rugged individualism. There, it was all about what’s good for the whole.”

It was clear how much the school valued the partnership, Susan Fumo said.  Before the group posed for pictures at an event, they would roll out a special banner for the occasion. “Their preparation and formality showed us they thought this was very important.” Their curiosity was intense as well. “Anywhere we went in the school, they were hanging over the banisters, watching us.”

Jackson Fumo is certain the experience changed him, and not only because he saw famous sights like the Yellow Mountains and the Great Wall. “You’re a tourist if you just go. But on trips like this, you get to feel like you are actually a part of something. You get to feel like you are expanding relations and joining two schools together to become a family.”

Mary Kaull is strategic communications coordinator for the Rockford Public Schools. Click here to subscribe to this blog. Also, please like RPS 205 on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.