Local elementary and middle school students head to China for cultural exchange.

COURTESY PHOTO: FRANCESCA SINAPI  - Students visited the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an, China during their trip.While spring break is typically considered a time to relax at home or to take a vacation somewhere sunny with family, students from several Hillsboro schools spent their spring break on the long-distance field trip, 5,000 miles from home.

Last week, 30 students and staff members from Ladd Acres Elementary School, Jackson Elementary School and R.A. Brown Middle School in Hillsboro took flight to Beijing for the week.

Hillsboro students joined children at schools in China and participated in some of their after school programs, said Ladd Acres Principal Francesca Sinapi. They visited the Great Wall of China, Tiananmen Square, and The Forbidden City, and students and chaperones stayed with host families to get the full immersive experience.

Sinapi called it "the trip of a lifetime."

"I hope this not only enriches what we are doing here with our Chinese program, but also for them, helps them to understand there's this whole other world that's out there," Sinapi said.

The trip was organized through the schools' integration of the Confucius Institute, a non-profit group affiliated with the Chinese government's Ministry of Education and based at Portland State University. Since 2014, the schools have partnered with the Confucius Institute to host visiting teachers from China, in order to expose students to Chinese culture and help develop positive cross-cultural relations, Sinapi said.

Chinese teachers in Hillsboro teach calligraphy, paper cutting, Chinese dance and music and basic conversation. They participate in after school programs each week, making them a more cultural experience, Sinapi said, such as teaching gardening and plant terms in their language.

COURTESY PHOTO: FRANCESCA SINAPI - Students visited an organic tea farm where they picked their own leaves before a formal afternoon tea in China.Offered at several schools in Hillsboro, including Ladd Acres, the program has been a success, Sinapi said.

The positive feedback from facilitating the exchange for teachers led lead teacher Laurie Cameron to consider doing a cross-cultural exchange for the students. She worked in conjunction with WorldStrides, a student travel organization, to bring the trip to life, Sinapi said.

While many Hillsboro schools offer dual-language courses in both Spanish and English, Sinapi thought a Chinese program would be better for her school, she said.

At Ladd Acres, the Vietnamese population is comparable to the Latino population, Sinapi said, so she felt doing something unique to both cultures would be most appropriate.

"Having a Chinese program was something that we could sustain and something that still gave them that exposure to another language and another culture," she said.

The trip was expensive, so many of the students raised money for nearly a year to pay for it, Sinapi said. They held car washes last summer, set up fundraisers at local restaurants and have been selling items in the morning at the student store.

Students returned home Sunday, April 1, and shared their experiences across the world with their peers at school on Monday.

"We aren't a mobile school and we aren't a mobile city," Sinapi said. "Everybody knows everybody, and that's great, I love that sense of community, but I'm hoping our students are able to walk away and see that there is so much more in this world for them."

Sinapi hopes students come back from their trip with not only a broader vision of the world, but also a reminder to be grateful for what they do have, she said.

"I know my trip to China a couple years ago changed me," she said. "Completely."

By Olivia Singer
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune
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