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Las Juntas considers sistering with school in Benxi, China

From left: B. Fang, director of Foreign Affairs, Shenyang, China; Gretchen Lammers, MUSD English as a Second Language program co-coordinator; MUSD Superintendent Rami Muth; Crystal Castaneda, principal of Las Juntas Elementary School; and another official from China, Jin Zhang. MUSD employees have returned from China and are proposing Las Juntas become a sister school to one in Benxi. (COURTESY / On File)
From left: B. Fang, director of Foreign Affairs, Shenyang, China; Gretchen Lammers, MUSD English as a Second Language program co-coordinator; MUSD Superintendent Rami Muth; Crystal Castaneda, principal of Las Juntas Elementary School; and another official from China, Jin Zhang. MUSD employees have returned from China and are proposing Las Juntas become a sister school to one in Benxi. (COURTESY / On File)

By DONNA BETH WEILENMAN
Martinez Tribune

Las Juntas Elementary School could use a “sister,” two educators have suggested to the Martinez Unified School District (MUSD) Board of Education.

It would be the first time the MUSD will participate in the sister school program.

The sister would be a bilingual school in China, said Gretchen Lammers, one of the coordinators of Martinez Adult Education English as a Second Language and community education coordinator, and Las Juntas principal Crystal Castaneda.

They have suggested the Benxi Bilingual Elementary School as a suitable sister school to Las Juntas.

The school is in Benxi City, a metropolitan area of 1.7 million people in the Liaoning Province. It’s near Shenyang, which has 8 million people.

Founded in 1994 as the first foreign language school in Benxi, it has 2,157 students, 150 teachers and 47 classes with what the two women described as “rigorous instruction” in academic, athletic and artistic subjects.

Both Lammers and Castaneda visited the school this past summer to develop training for 60 high school teachers, and the relationship between the two schools began developing then.

The sister-school opportunity came during that time, Lammers said.

“I was in China teaching high school English teachers. While there, the elementary school invited me for a visit,” she said. As her relationship with the school and teachers grew, she was asked to help the Benxi school find a sister school in the United States.

“It was only logical that I should approach my own district first,” she said. She has taught English and coordinated English as a second language programs and services at MUSD for 25 years.

She said the Benxi school has similar programs to Las Juntas, and the area has a smaller-city feel that its large population might not indicate.

She called the matchup of the two schools “a no-brainer.”

The relationship would be akin to the sister cities program that many municipalities, including Martinez, enter in hopes of promoting good relations throughout the world.

“It is our hope and plan that in the context of strengthening communication in English language skills, the children will learn firsthand about daily life in another country,” Lammers said. “I hope there will be a cultural exchange between teachers as well. Anything is possible.”

Castaneda sees value in connecting her school with the one in China. Giving students opportunities to learn firsthand about other cultures, and to participate in collaborative learning exercises would be some of the benefits.

Another would be chances to undertake STEAM field exercises, Castaneda said.

STEAM fields is an extension of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education initiative and adds arts to incorporate design principles and creativity to the critical thinking process.

The school sistership would also let those in both schools share teaching and learning practices, Castaneda said. “This is a chance to learn from each other, both students and staff,” she said.

The relationship is at the earliest of stages, however. Before it goes any further, the Board of Education must give its approval and issue an official letter of invitation to the Benxi Bureau of Education.

The MUSD school board was receptive to the proposal at its Nov. 9 meeting.

“This is absolutely so exciting,” Board Member Denise Elsken said. She described how her daughter had traveled to Japan when she was younger. “Now she has friends all over the world. This is so important for our kids – I’m not sure our generation realizes it.”

Fortunately, this proposal is coming at a time when students can speak to their counterparts on the other side of the globe through a computer.

Board President John Fuller recalled when his wife was traveling. He said it cost him $45 for a short call, but now students can use Skype for free.

Lammers said she traveled outside of the United States for the first time 35 years ago. “That experience changed me and changed the direction of my life,” she said. “Since then, I have built a career and my life’s work on teaching English and building and coordinating English as a second language programs, bringing people from around the world together.

“It may seem simplistic and naïve, but if our world has any hope, it will be because of relationships, friendships and connections,” Lammers said. “The ability to see outside our own perspective and consider the thoughts, ideas, opinions and ways of others is a skill every person in the 21st century needs to have in every aspect and area of their life.”

Once the school board’s letter of request is accepted by the Benxi government, the Benxi Education officials and the school’s principal would be invited to visit Las Juntas Elementary School, which could take place as early as January 2016.

Bilingual teachers would come to Martinez to visit the school in March 2016, and in the future, representatives of Las Juntas Elementary School could visit Benxi, according to current plans.

Lammers said there is “a strong chance” some of the Martinez school’s teachers would travel to Benxi as well.

“Someday, with enough planning and support, maybe we can take a group of students and teachers,” Lammers said, adding that the program’s possibilities are limited only by “vision, planning, communication and work.”

Ideally, she said, the relationship will grow for many years, “as time, experience and possibilities inspire us. Where that relationship goes depends on what both partners need, want and make it,” she said.

Castaneda said she expects the program would enhance Las Juntas Elementary pupils’ experiences in school, and could inspire them to attend college and make better career choices.

“This has been what my life has been all about,” Lammers said, citing her own personal experience as well as watching her own children learn from traveling and becoming friends with those throughout the world.

“Bringing this opportunity to the children in our community will help open the door to another world and other possibilities,” she said. “They may not be able to travel outside of their state, but we can bring the world to them.

They will definitely be changed and perhaps even more open and interested in many more things outside their own little worlds.”

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