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Five Tips to Strengthen International School Partnerships

The world is growing interconnected at a faster rate than ever before. As such, young people should have international experiences during their formative years as they learn how the world works. I am often asked about creating effective international school-to-school partnerships. This is a key element of our Confucius Classrooms program, which connects 101 American schools in 28 states with equal number of partner schools in 20 provinces in China. I've asked my colleague Jeff Wang, who has helped design and implement these school partnerships and international projects, to share some lessons learned.

By Jeff Wang

With travel and exchanges becoming increasingly affordable to more schools and students, we have an opportunity and responsibility to build effective K-12 level school-to-school partnerships with student exchange programs that are much more than vacations abroad. With vision, design, resources, persistence, and a little bit of luck, school-to-school partnerships are treasure troves for student learning and educators' professional growth.

Schools are usually paired up based on similar grade levels, student profiles, geographic location, and local industries. However, one critical match is the vision of the district and school leaders on both sides. The most effective way to cultivate a shared vision for exchange activities is through learning about each other's society—economics, history, youth culture, and education system. Not only does this learning reinforce the conviction that the world our students will inherit is an ever more interconnected one, it also leads to discoveries of common concerns and varying approaches to issues within each other's education system and school community. When Asia Society brought American educators to China to meet with leaders in education, business, academia, media, and youth culture, the experience strengthened their commitment to international school partnerships, and gave them new insights and ideas to creative and engaging exchange initiatives for their students.

Exchange and collaborative activities should be carefully designed to enhance the learning objectives of a student's regular curriculum. In a school-to-school partnership, students can be channeled to apply foreign language skills, to jointly solve a math problem, to compare each other's measurement of local air pollution for a science unit, to perform an ensemble for the community, to fundraise together for an exchange visit...the options are limitless. Careful and smart design will engage students and teachers, so exchange activities are not additional tasks, but rather exciting elements that fit right in with the goal of enhancing the learning experience.

The administrators and the teachers I have worked with are perhaps the most resourceful bunch out there! Their experience proves that the school community and beyond is where both resources and know-how lie. You will not be able to host 20 visiting students in your house, you don't know how to get the best airfares, you can't speak all languages native to your partner schools. In each case, your colleagues and community are your best bet. Smart engagement with the community will bring even more buy-in and support in the future. You may also be pleasantly surprised to learn how many businesses in your area have dealings with the home country of your partner school. Take China as an example, between 2000 and 2010, U.S. exports to China nearly quintupled. Out of the 435 congressional districts, 408 saw triple-digit growth in exports to China. You can look up your own local area in an exhaustive report by the US-China Business Council. You may task your PTA with discovering and pursuing interest and support for your exchange program from these locally vested businesses.

International school partnerships connect two systems' students and educators as well as their communities, where bureaucratic process and communication style can vary a great deal. It's often easier to discuss with your international counterpart the big ideas and an ambitious project, while it's harder to mention difficulties and challenges, fearing that it would be seen as lack of commitment. What I find most interesting is that often the issues that one side runs into, such as funding, timing, leadership support and approval, are perfectly appreciated by the other side and even a source of commiseration. Clear and persistent communication will lead to more realistic and attainable exchange projects that fit the need and capacity of both schools involved. Miscommunication and setbacks happen even with the best intentions and best-laid plans. In those times, focus on learning from the experience, and your patience and persistence will be rewarded.

A little bit of luck
You know the old fortune cookie prediction, "Fortune sides with those who come prepared". Sometimes, the best idea, the best conversation, the best result come through serendipity, such as over a meal, during a car ride, or a homestay. Serendipities are invaluable and impossible to plan. What we can do is build in space and time that simply allow exchange to happen naturally, unscripted.

To help schools think more broadly and long-term about international partnerships, Asia Society has published a Partnership Development Matrix. We welcome your comments and thoughts.

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