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By Jimmie Earls
Sun Staff Writer
Comparing Washington County to Beijing, China may be tough to comprehend, but when it comes to education, each country has something to learn from each other. That’s what Washington County High School Principal Leon Smith recently discovered during a trip to China sponsored by the Collaborative for Teaching and Learning based in Louisville.
Smith, along with CTL President and COO Dr. Deborah Walker and President and CEO Emeritus Dr. Linda F. Hargan, visited Beijing in December to take part in the 2008 China Top High School International Education Forum Dec. 14 and 15. The forum, attended by principals from over 400 high schools in China, focused on the attributes and characteristics of effective instructional leadership.
Smith gave a 30-minute presentation at the forum focusing on WCHS’s Striving Readers grant, a federally-funded program aimed at improving the reading skills of middle-school and high school-aged students who are reading below grade level.
“Our school’s doing an outstanding job in the implementation of our Striving Readers grant,” said Smith. “That’s a strong compliment to our staff. CTL’s been really impressed with us as a high school in what we are doing with this grant.”
Smith went on to say that CTL is trying to establish a partnership with China.
“China has a strong component with working out of the workbook and learning from that regard. What they really want to implement is creative strategy in the classroom. CTL has a lot of models China can go by. I was asked to go and speak as a principal based on the work we have done.”
Smith's main duty during the trip was to speak on his role and responsibilities as an American high school principal. Smith was very impressed with the reception the Chinese gave the group from Kentucky, especially when they visited one of the top high schools on the edge of Beijing.
“They treated us royally,” Smith added. “They treated us respectfully. They have no discipline problems and they study very hard.”
High school students in Beijing attend school from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The school Smith visited had approximately 1,900 students, 100 of which must live in a dorm because they live too far from school and transportation is not provided. On top of that, there are no extracurricular activities for the students.
Smith said, “I asked what type of activities they had for the students on campus at night and they said there were none, no activities. The students study until bedtime every night.”
That dedication to learning from the students was impressive to Smith, who sees how China is becoming a global competitor, producing more scientists, physicists, and mathematicians than the United States, and how China is becoming more aggressive in its education system.
“As a country, China is exciting to visit,” Smith said. “But if you look down the road, what are the implications for our country? It’s scary for our young people if they’re going to have to compete with China in the next 10 or 15 years.”
The Chinese are also looking to change the role of the principal in their schools. Chinese principals have little or no interaction with the students; it’s more of a managerial position with a company.
“Some schools in China have 5-6,000 students,” said Smith. “They don’t have a board, they’re basically the headmaster of the whole school. They don’t have to deal with parents or community issues. In the U.S., we’re basically instructional leaders. We still have to deal with the business side, plus deal with community, parents, public relations and leadership in other categories. It’s more complex than what they do in China.”
Smith had a very pleasant experience and enjoyed being treated like a rock star. In fact, following Smith’s speech at the forum, there was a break for tea. But Smith never got to take a break because everyone wanted to have his or her picture taken with him.
Of course, Smith couldn’t travel to China without taking in some of the local sights such as the Great Wall, the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube where Michael Phelps won eight gold medals during the 2008 summer Olympic games.
“It was a great honor,” said Smith. “I’m very appreciative to CTL for giving the opportunity to go.”
Smith will have a chance to return the favor when a delegation from China visits Washington County in the next month.
“We are going to have some Chinese visitors here at the end of February,” added Smith. “They will be visiting four schools in Kentucky and bringing along educators from China. We’re going to be one of the host schools.”
The Chinese delegation will have a chance to observe classrooms in Washington County and see some of the teaching strategies the high school is using. It will be a chance to build a relationship with the Chinese to learn from each other.