“Knowing what I know now, it’s pretty intimidating,” admits Daniel W. Gregg, Director of the Connecticut Shandong School Partnerships of the Connecticut State Department of Education, speaking about forging partnerships with Chinese schools. So, how does one break down the process of initiating and forging a long-term relationship with a Chinese school into practical and effective steps?
While a formal alliance with a Chinese school can yield exchanges through the years for administrators, teachers, and students, how does a school or community leader initiate a long-term relationship? Gregg, who became hooked on direct exchanges with China after joining a 1999 Freeman Foundation-funded trip to “Frontier China,” suggests joining a pre-arranged exchange in order to make initial connections and see the country, and then, if one wants a more permanent partnership between schools, building on these relationships over the years.
If one has already identified a partnership school, however, one may discover that the Chinese and American processes for forming agreements differ. Dr. Juefei Wang, Program Director of the Freeman Foundation and Founder and Former Director of the Asian Studies Outreach Program (ASOP) at the University of Vermont, explains, “All Chinese schools want to partner, especially with U.S. schools. But, the decision is not the school’s; it is the local government’s. Education is government business in China and it has been that way for thousands of years.” Once the government agrees to a partnership, the Chinese school will enthusiastically deploy its resources to promote the exchange.
Dan Gregg followed this procedure in establishing an agreement between the Connecticut State Department of Education and the Shandong Provincial Education Department. In 1986 the Governors of Connecticut and the northeast coastal province of Shandong signed a trade agreement. Sixteen years later, in the fall of 2002, this happened to result in an exchange between educational leaders, who all expressed interest in direct partnership. They moved rapidly and within three months the Connecticut State Department of Education and the Shandong Provincial Education Department signed an agreement pledging to form sister schools and conduct regular exchanges. Today, there are more than 100 school to school partnerships between Connecticut and Shandong, and Gregg himself organizes two exchanges to China per year, one for principals, school-board members, superintendents, and community leaders.
In originating and nurturing on-going partnerships, Gregg stresses one crucial asset: a trusted friend. In China, personal connections, or guanxi, are paramount in business and in education. Gregg confesses that he himself did not absorb the importance of relationships, until a Chinese friend commented, “I don’t think you get this place. You think it runs on institutions, but it runs on people.” Gregg advises American educational leaders to find others who are already “wired” and who can mentor them in China, and also to be patient and committed to cultivating the relationships over the years.
Unlike in years past, Chinese schools no longer need outside funding support for exchanges, opening up the feasibility of reciprocal exchanges between officials, teachers, and students. Wang explains that parents in China strongly support student exchanges and will gladly cover the costs for their child to go to the United States.
If one has the long-term vision and dedication to foster a partnership, what is the first step? One effective strategy is to build on pre-existing sister-city or trade relationships in your community, expanding these to include alliances between educational institutions. Moreover, several states, such as Connecticut, Indiana, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Vermont, and Washington State offer exchange programming or support through their state departments of education or through other organizations. Other starting points include:
While constructing partnerships is not necessarily a swift or simple process, it is extremely gratifying for people and rewarding for schools. Administrators, teachers, and students all benefit from contact with their Chinese counterparts. As Wang reflects, “The understanding between our two countries is much better due to many people’s work.”
Author: Heather Clydesdale.