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By Dan Rudy 

Student exchange gives broader perspective of the state

 

Submitted Photo

Middle schoolers Laura Helgeson, Jade Balansag, Tasha Massin, Jing O'Brien and Hanna Brown get a group picture with the stuffed moose at Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage after arriving Feb. 27.

Students at Stikine Middle School will be hosting a group from Colony Middle School in Palmer next week as part of a cultural exchange program.

Humanities teacher Jim Brooks has organized the exchange on Wrangell's end, which is supported by the Alaska Humanities Forum. Its Sister School Exchange is an experiential program which promotes understanding between urban and rural communities through cross-cultural exchanges for middle and high school students.

A teacher and five students from an off-the-road-system community are matched with counterparts from urban Alaska. Students work through a curriculum on cross-cultural understanding before undergoing a full two-way exchange. During the exchange each team spends a week living in their sister school community, with individual students residing with another family during the trip.

"I think it's a great program," Brooks said. "The last time I did this we were actually the urban school." Brooks explained three years ago Wrangell had exchanged students with a school from the Bethel area.

His students already spent their week in Palmer, heading out on Feb. 27 and returning March 5. The school they attended is larger than Wrangell's, with more than ten times as many students.

"It's just a huge difference from the 60 kids we have here in Wrangell," said Brooks. "There are a lot of different hands-on activities the kids did."

During the week the middle schoolers shadowed their peers through classes, lunch and extracurricular activities, all of which a few found a little overwhelming. After school, the group learned first-hand what life in the Matanuska-Susitna area is like, getting some agricultural experience, checking out a local community college and visiting My House, a homeless shelter for local youth.

"That was a pretty sobering, eye-opening experience for the kids," Brooks said.

As cultural ambassadors, Wrangell's students also answered questions put to them by their peers.

One student, Laura Helgeson, said the most common one she was asked was whether Wrangell had Wi-Fi and phone service.

The Palmer students will soon find out for themselves, arriving on Saturday. While here, Wrangell's students plan to take them up the Stikine River, visit the Chief Shakes Clan House, see the community's hospital and fire station, and other activities.

Participating students put in a lot of work, meeting twice each week after school since October and keeping up on their regular work while away.

"It's admirable that they were able to keep up," said Brooks. "It takes a lot of work."

In the end, the program's goal is to open up young Alaskans' perspectives to the state's diverse communities. The trip was some students' first time experiencing a larger environment, and it made them think about their own community in a new light. It also allowed them to see firsthand what life was like in a new place and the opportunities and problems unique to it.

"The intent of the program is to take these guys out of their comfort zones," Brooks explained.

 

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