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Superintendent's globetrotting leads to education insight

Pictured left to right during an Aug. 1 tour of two Federal Way schools: Ms. Dongni Meng, vice principal of the Northeast Yucai Experimental School (NYEC) in Beijing; Thomas Jefferson High School IB student Angela Chen; Ms. Changyan Xing, principal of NYEC - Courtesy of Deb Stenberg/Federal Way Public Schools
Pictured left to right during an Aug. 1 tour of two Federal Way schools: Ms. Dongni Meng, vice principal of the Northeast Yucai Experimental School (NYEC) in Beijing; Thomas Jefferson High School IB student Angela Chen; Ms. Changyan Xing, principal of NYEC
— image credit: Courtesy of Deb Stenberg/Federal Way Public Schools

Federal Way Public Schools (FWPS) Superintendent Rob Neu had the chance to reflect on some recent international trips he had taken to Indonesia and South Korea, sharing his experiences with the school board during its July 23 meeting.

“I watched your June 25 meeting from a hotel room in Semarang, Indonesia, which was pretty cool,” Neu said. “You just sit there, look out the hotel room, and realize you’re a long way away from home.”

Neu said the trip was put together by Highline Community College. Indonesia is currently undergoing educational reform, with its focus on the community college system, Neu said.

“The entire Ministry of Education is revamping the education system there, but it’s really around the community college system,” Neu said. “And that’s Highline’s role, and of course, our relationship with Highline feeds into that community college partnership/relationship.”

“Running Start…was really attractive to the Indonesians,” Neu added, referring to a program that allows high school juniors and seniors to enroll in college-level classes.

With the strained relationships between the governments of the United States and Indonesia, the presence of American educators created a fair amount of media coverage in the island country, Neu said.

Something that Neu found enlightening in his trips was the desire of the other countries to learn about the American educational system.

“Our politicians and media are hammering us to be more like them…but they’re looking to us, especially as their citizenries become more diverse. It’s a really interesting dynamic that’s going on,” he said.

Neu was also off to South Korea recently, with an all-expenses paid trip from the Korean Consulate here. Neu and FWPS were chosen because of an agreement reached in Dec. 2012 between the district and the Korean government. The agreement allows FWPS students to earn credits for completing Korean language classes.

“They asked me to keynote, so that’s kind of how big of a relationship this is,” he said.

With those trips under his belt, Neu said he’d like to figure out how FWPS can offer more foreign language options to students.

“I’d really love for us to have four secondary language programs in the district,” he said. “I’d love for us to have Mandarin Chinese, because of how big of an economic player the Chinese are. Korean and Russian, because of our significant Korean and Russian populations, and Spanish, because of our significant Spanish-speaking population."

The reason for this, Neu said, came from the Indonesia trip.

“I knew he had made a joke, because he repeated what I said, and I knew I wasn’t making a joke,” Neu said, referencing the Indonesian interpreter. “And one of the guys from Highline spoke the language and said ‘He just told them you are from the U.S., the only single-language country in the world.”

The costs and benefits

These trips are paying off, with a number of high level members of Beijing's Northeast Yucai Experimental School visiting Federal Way on Aug. 1 as a result of Neu and FWPS board president Tony Moore's trip to China this past spring.

Along with them were a former vice president of Xinhua News Agency, a faculty member of the Beijing Language and Culture University, and several members of the executive team of Beijing Channel Consulting. The group was given a tour of the Technology Access Foundation Academy and Thomas Jefferson High School.

Trips like these are just the start for creating the transition for FWPS students to become global citizens, said Moore and Neu.

"The board has decided to transition to globally prepared students," Moore said. "Some of the trips the board has taken in the past (to national conferences here in the U.S.) will be forfeited to do a more international traveling plan, which will help board members be more informed on international citizenship."

Moore continued, saying that the board's travels "might start with the board and staff going (abroad), but ultimately it's about the the kids being exposed to the international education system."

Neu concurred, saying he agrees and supports "the school board's vision for educating our students to succeed in a globally connected world."

"Our Global Initiative started several years ago and has been embraced by every school board member and the school community since then," he noted. "Our students have to be globally competent, which means they must speak at least one other language, must understand other cultures and be able to operate successfully in a diverse and complex global economy. It's our responsibility to provide them the education to do this."

Moore mentioned that board members will be traveling to a number of Western countries in the fall, including Finland, Scotland and England, saying that "Finland is the premiere education system in the world."

As for the costs of these trips, Neu conceded that he did pay $1,400 out of pocket in hotel costs, and that his flight costs were covered by the district, but did posit that the costs are not a high priority when it comes to preparing students.

"I think the question is not whether we can afford to prepare our students for a globally competitive world, but what is the cost of not preparing them?" he said. "In addition to implementing globally focused curriculum and programs, we must also establish relationships with educators from around the world. We must learn from each other and with each other. This cannot be done through email…Our study missions enable me and board members to establish these relationships firsthand…We also believe there is an opportunity for the district to generate revenue by sponsoring visiting students and teachers from other countries."

Moore indicated that these trips are important enough for him that he's willing to forgo making money here at home.

"I'm self-employed, so if I go, I don't make money," he said.

Learn more

Click here to read more about the cost of the trips in this story.

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