It was a typical Wednesday morning at Montclair High School. Students rushed to class, teachers lectured, end-of-period bells rang. To an American student, all was as it should be. But to Chinese 12th grader Pin Zhao, this day, like every day since September 6, had a distinctly exotic flavor.
The Superintendent came to the high school to personally make the acquaintance of Chinese exchange student Pin Zhao.
“This school is so big,” he marveled, “sometimes it’s hard to find your classroom. In China, we don’t have a problem like this.”
Pin is one of 9 foreign exchange students currently enrolled at MHS, but the first ever to arrive here from China. For the 2007-08 school year, he will live with an American host family, attend school full-time, and participate in extracurricular activities in the school and township. Whenever possible, he will also travel to nearby areas – as he has already begun doing. (New York City, he said, was impressive but there were “too many people, and terrible traffic.”)
Pin hails from the Shijiazhuang province of northern China – “not a very big city,” he says. An only child, he lives in an apartment with his mother, a judge and father, a technical engineer. Here in Montclair, he resides with a host family consisting of two parents and four children. “They are very kind,” he says. “Montclair is a good town. I like the lifestyle here. People have been very nice.”
Like many students his age, Pin has studied English since he was in the fifth grade; still, he says, “Studying here is hard. The classes are not as difficult [as in China] but it’s hard to do everything in English.”
But Pin is typical of his Chinese peers in that even before his arrival in the U.S. in August, he was aware that facility with English and other languages was a necessity in today’s world.
This past summer, Superintendent Frank Alvarez traveled to schools and cultural sites in China as part of a delegation of U.S. school administrators. “It was enlightening to see how purposefully Chinese educators are preparing their students to take their places in the global economy — beginning with English language study as early as the third grade,” he said. At several of the teachers’ colleges he visited in Beijing and the Henin province, Dr. Alvarez met students approaching their graduation date who were already qualified to assume Chinese-teaching positions in schools throughout the world.
Not only did his trip prove inspiring as an educator, but Dr. Alvarez reported later that the experience contributed to his overall understanding of emerging global developments and what their implications might be over time.
“The Chinese represent roughly a quarter of the world’s population,” Dr. Alvarez noted in a letter to district parents in September. “We need to pay attention.”
Although Pin’s enrollment at MHS did not result from the Superintendent’s visit to China, for Dr. Alvarez, the Chinese student's arrival in Montclair provided a welcome reminder of his summer experience. On that Wednesday morning in October, the Superintendent stopped in at MHS specifically to meet the twelfth grader.
“Ni hao,” he greeted Pin with a smile.
The Chinese boy beamed, but answered in English: “Hello. I am pleased to meet you.”
In 2007-08, Montclair High School is also hosting students from Japan, Brazil, Germany, the Dominican Republic and Belgium.
“This is the year the Montclair Public Schools are going global,” promised the Superintendent in September. Other projects and events intended to expand the cultural awareness of staff and students have already included:
- A visit from four Russian school administrators this month, organized by Montclair State University’s Global Education Center
- The participation of an MHS junior, Emily Srebro, in the World Special Olympics in Shanghai, where she earned one bronze, three silver and one gold medal for Montclair
- A visit by German exchange students and educators to Montclair High School this past week
- A year-long, multi-disciplinary project conducted by Bradford teacher Bernard Maniscalo with MHS teacher Andrew Morgan, who is currently bicycling around the world
“I think the more opportunities for cultural exchange we can create in this district, the better,” said Dr. Alvarez. “The world truly is becoming a smaller place, and it’s incumbent upon us to guide our students to take their places in it.”