LINWOOD — A contingent of four will take off Saturday and fly to the other side of the globe for what local and Chinese school officials are hoping will be the start of a lasting cultural exchange between the Linwood School District and the Chengdu District Education Bureau.

The members of the Linwood team traveling to China are Belhaven Middle School Principal Susan Speirs, Linwood Board of Education member Craig Kahn, Seaview Elementary School basic skills teacher Samantha Coyle, and Belhaven Middle School industrial technology teacher Pete Davis.

"We are very excited about this inaugural trip to China," Speirs said. "It is our hope that our trip will lead to student exchanges that will make the world a smaller, friendlier place for our students and the larger Linwood community. With Linwood families hosting Chinese students, the bonds will be built for lasting relationships that benefit all participants in many ways."

Coyle said she is beyond excited.

"The opportunities to introduce our students to a new culture and the chance to make the world smaller place is so exciting," she said. "Travel is a key that opens so many doors, and being able to make this trip and open those doors for our kids and our community is really an wonderful thing."

Coyle said that while she is excited to meet the teachers and children at Chengdu, experience their culture and share her country's culture with them, she is having a hard time wrapping her head around some of the "amazing" things planned for the trip, such as visiting the Great Wall.

Their visit will include familiarizing themselves with the five key schools in the Chengdu District, meeting staff and families involved in creating the cooperative partnership, and helping develop a long-term educational exchange for students and teachers, according to Robert Franklin of Robert Franklin Consulting.

In addition to visiting the Great Wall, plans include trips to the Panda Reserve, a Sichuan opera and the Forbidden City, among other venues.

Getting the program off the ground began before the start of the school year. Franklin, who lives in Linwood, presented a plan to the school board that laid the groundwork for a cultural exchange program that would eventually bring Chinese students to Linwood, and likewise send Linwood students to China — at no cost to the district.

The educational component of the trip would be covered by the Chinese, and families wishing to send their children on the exchange trip to China will be presented a package for travel, accommodations, meals and attractions that would be less than the cost of taking the trip on their own, he said.

Franklin said he has been orchestrating international travel programs for more than 20 years, and that his consulting firm has a network spanning government, businesses and organizations at home, in China and around the world working on programs that help communities facilitate relationships and logistics such as destination development, hospitality, education, travel, tourism and cultural exchange.

He said he has already established cultural exchange programs with the Chengdu Bureau to what he called “exclusive schools” in the United Kingdom, Czech Republic, Australia and most recently in San Francisco. The Chinese wanted to establish an exchange with an East Coast Blue Ribbon School, he said, and that is what prompted him to suggest Linwood.

In late September representatives from the Chengdu Pao Tongshu Primary School, home to roughly 2,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, visited Linwood school District. 

“They were duly impressed with our schools and programs and presented the board with a proposal to start a cultural exchange program with the Linwood School District," Superintendent Michelle Cappelluti said. "Since that time we have been working hard to make this happen.”

She said it takes a lot of work and a lot of trust to get a program like this started.

“It will not just be a single visit and two weeks learning with your students. It is just the start of a world view developing programs and friendships between a famous Chinese school and a renowned New Jersey school,” the proposal from the Chengdu bureau to the Linwood Board of Education states.

The board approved a two-week visit for a cultural exchange program Oct. 25. Prior to the vote Franklin spoke before the board and said his company provides investment funds for organizations, communities and international tourism services. He and his business partner, his wife, Sara, a native of Beijing, have traveled internationally throughout their career.

“The experience I had traveling through so many countries was a phenomenal education, of which I told myself I wish I had done that earlier in my life because it made the world a very small place,” Franklin said.

Cappelluti said the cost of the trip is being borne by the Chinese, including staying in a hotel provided by the host.

The tentative plan is to have 20 Chinese students and teachers visit the Linwood School District for two weeks in April; the details will be discussed while the Linwood delegation is in China next week. The students, ages 8 through 12, would stay with host families and do activities with the host family, according to Cappelluti.

Franklin said the students visiting from China would be able to speak English, noting that it is the No. 1 foreign language studied in China. They will attend classes at Seaview or Belhaven.

“While we feel this is an exciting opportunity for our students making global connections, the Chinese can certainly appreciate the apprehensiveness of our parents sending their children to China — our representatives will begin the bridging,” Cappelluti said in a letter to staff.

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