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Hyde Park charter school builds bridges internationally, honors leadership locally

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  November 29, 2011 09:56 AM

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Chinese classroom 1.jpg

(Courtesy Boston Renaissance Charter Public School)

Boston Renaissance Charter Public School and other members of the Chinese Bridge Delegation visited a Chinese classroom in early November.

A Hyde Park charter school is working to expand educational opportunities and its global reach through building relationships at home and abroad.

Just back from an early November cultural and educational exchange visit to schools in China, leaders of the Boston Renaissance Charter Public School are preparing this week to honor local leaders and to celebrate some accomplished members of their own school community at the school’s first gala event.

Roger F. Harris, the superintendent and chief executive officer of the charter school, has made four trips to China, visiting seven cities and 20 schools there.

“For me it was just an opportunity to visit more schools in a different city, see different pedagogy, see different styles and methods,” Harris said in a recent interview at his office. He said he is always impressed with the Chinese educators’ “graciousness and generosity” to visitors. “I’ve developed a whole new appreciation for China and Chinese culture.”

The Chinese Bridge Delegation is a week-long program intended to help American schools begin or improve Chinese language and culture programs and develop partnerships with Chinese institutions.

It is a partnership between the College Board, the American nonprofit organization that offers the SAT and AP programs for high school students, and Hanban, a public institution associated with the Chinese Ministry of Education that works to provide resources for teaching Chinese language and culture around the world.

Part of an American delegation of about 430, the Renaissance group included Harris; Yolanda Burnett, the school’s chief accountability officer; board member Muriel Jackson Leonard, a former deputy superintendent of Boston Public Schools; Janet Phlegar, a consultant for the educational consultant group WestEd; and Cheryl Watson-Harris, who is principal of Boston’s Tobin K-8 School and is married to Harris.

Harris, who served as principal of Boston’s James P. Timilty Middle School for eight years before coming to the Renaissance, said Watson-Harris attended not just to share the trip with her husband but as part of a broader effort to include educators from BPS in Renaissance’s efforts to build international partnerships. In 2010, an assistant principal from the Rogers Middle School accompanied Renaissance leaders on a trip to China, and an educator from West Roxbury High School will join them for an upcoming trip.

“Hopefully we can tear down this wall that’s existed between charter schools and traditional public schools,” Harris said, “and focus on what kids need to be learning.”

Renaissance’s Chinese program began in 2009 with one teacher and 84 K1 and K2 students. It has now expanded to approximately 400 students and three fulltime teachers, plus one guest teacher visiting for the year through the Chinese Bridge program. In May 2010, the program won a $1.3 million Foreign Language Assistance Program grant from the US Department of Education to support its expansion.

The November trip began with three days of orientation and sightseeing in Beijing, the capital of the People's Republic of China, and then moved on to three days of visits to schools in another city to “learn about the culture and the educational practices in those particular schools in that particular city,” Harris explained. The trip concluded with another two days in Beijing to debrief and to visit schools in the capital city.

The schools the delegation visited were much larger than most American schools, with 2,000 – 5,000 students each and classrooms of 45 – 50 students, yet the students were “orderly and respectful,” Harris said. “I think most Americans would be very, very impressed,” he said.

The delegation saw exercise periods in which the entire student body would gather in neat rows to exercise in unison, led by fellow students, and that students also led cleanup in cafeterias and corridors.

“It reminded me of the Marines,” said Harris, who served in his youth. “I said, these kids are being trained in many, many ways.”

Harris also saw firsthand during the trip that programs like Renaissance’s — still rare in the US — are already widely embraced in China.

“One of the takeaways for me is the emphasis on second-language learning for Chinese children,” Harris said. “In most schools, English is mandatory in the third grade, and in many schools it’s mandatory in the first grade. I think that’s impressive. I think there’s a high standard that’s set for students and there’s a respect for school and for teachers.”

Burnett said she noted the Chinese schools’ focus on student self-discipline and development of long-term goals. One school the delegation visited, for instance, had a program designed to prepare its students specifically for Ivy League universities in the US, and its students were exempt from taking entrance exams for Chinese schools so they could focus on that goal.

“They had a huge bulletin board that said ‘American Dream’ and it clearly spelled out for the students what the requirements [are] to enter an Ivy League school,” Burnett said.

She was also impressed by the schools’ focus on contributing to the community as demonstrated both by the students’ work outside school and by volunteers working inside the schools. Community service is a value the Renaissance embraces as well, and it will be the focus as the school hosts its first annual Champions for Children gala at the UMass Boston Campus Center on Dec. 1.

The event will honor Charles Ogletree, professor at Harvard Law School and director of the Charles Hamilton Houston institute for Race and Justice; Reverend William E. Dickerson, pastor of the Greater Love Tabernacle in Dorchester; Renaissance’s own Principal Jillian Nesgos, winner of the the Thomas C. Passios Outstanding Principal Award; the Berklee College of Music, and Century Bank.

“We’re recognizing individuals and institutions that have made a real commitment to children in and around the city of Boston,” Harris said.

The event will also include a performance by the school’s choir, the Voices of Renaissance, who performed earlier this year with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall. Harris said the school’s arts programs were just as important as its academics, with other creative programs including five forms of dance, a visual arts program that includes stop-animation movies, and a music lab similar to one at Berklee.

“We’ve had a commitment since the beginning to seriously educate the whole child and not just focus on the MCAS,” he said.

For more information about the Champions for Children gala, visit http://www.bostonrenaissance.org/.

Email Jeremy C. Fox at jeremycfox@gmail.com.
Follow Jeremy C. Fox on Twitter: @jeremycfox.
Follow Hyde Park on Twitter: @HydeParkInfo.

Chinese classroom 2.jpg

(Courtesy Boston Renaissance Charter Public School)

Chinese students worked diligently in a packed classroom in this photo from the Chinese Bridge Delegation trip.

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