Students at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac soon might be setting off for the other side of the world.
Principal Joan Benz was part of a September trip to China along with Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett, Superintendent Joshua P. Starr and others. Benz returned with an agreement between her school and Xi’an No. 1 Middle School in China that includes plans for regular visits between the two schools.
Benz said the hope is that the Chinese students — who are learning at the U.S. high-school level — could visit for about a week in the fall each year, possibly starting as soon as next fall.
“We want to show them what American football is really like, and homecoming and dances,” she said.
Churchill students then could visit in the spring of each year, possibly during their spring vacation, she said.
The partnership will let Churchill “heighten the awareness of how important Chinese is as a language” in its students, Benz said.
The first Churchill students going abroad likely would take those Chinese courses.
The agreement also calls for the schools to work toward a teacher-exchange program, which could start with teachers visiting for part of the summer or during their vacation time, Benz said.
The schools also will look into a shared study subject related to scientific research, according to the agreement. Benz said the schools currently are identifying their interest areas.
Benz said she visited the Xi’an school for a few hours, meeting school leaders and some of its roughly 1,800 students.
The Chinese students, she said, were eager to learn about their American counterparts.
“The kids there are like sponges,” she said. “They want to know what teenagers are like here.”
Benz said the schools are similar to each other in that they both have “high standards” and share an interest in technology.
She described the Xi’an school as “very modern,” with sculptures on the building entrances, a garden area and a calm atmosphere.
“It’s an enclave there,” she said. “It’s a school that’s right in the city, but you wouldn’t know it.”
Benz said the visit marked the first time she spoke with the Xi’an school leaders, but they had received a packet of information on Churchill before the trip.
The next step, she said, is for Churchill and Xi’an students to start communicating online and for her school to start fundraising for travel expenses.
“We will have to start getting into the fundraising piece, so that we can make this a reality,” she said.
Montgomery County Board of Education member Rebecca Smondrowski, who also was part of the county delegation on the China trip, said the partnership could be “a real plus if it’s done right.”
“They’re excited about the opportunity of coming here,” she said of the Xi’an students she spoke with.
Smondrowski said she’d like the school system to develop a center to help provide similar opportunities to other county schools.
Churchill is not the first county high school to form such a partnership.
About six years ago, Wootton High School in Rockville teamed up with Beijing No. 166 High School, leading to multiple trips by both groups, said Wootton Principal Michael Doran.
Doran said he and the Beijing school’s principal initially kept the agreement generic, but he hoped their partnership would expand beyond standard visits in a way that was “more meaningful for both schools.”
The relationship has done just that, he said.
The Beijing school’s student orchestra visited Wootton a couple years ago for a joint concert, Doran said. This year, students from both schools’ drama programs performed a theater production here that included scenes from “Little Women,” “Romeo and Juliet” and a play about the Beijing school’s 150th anniversary.
“That was the kind of thing that I wanted to happen, where it wasn’t just visiting people’s homes,” Doran said.
Next year, Wootton’s student band will travel to China to play with their Beijing cohorts in the Forbidden City.
Between the visits, he said, the students connect through forms of communication from Skype to U.S. mail.
Doran said the partnership led to friendships and other connections between the schools.
“Once you open a box, it’s amazing the kind of connections that are there,” he said.