Education Opinion


By Emmet Rosenfeld — March 07, 2009 3 min read
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Last Wednesday nearly seventy middle school students from Instituto Tepeyac, a private school in Mexico, transformed our gym into a celebration of their country and culture. Their visit was the first in what we hope will be a fruitful international partnership and an annual exchange of students. It’s also an interesting example of how some of the big trends of the 21st century—globalism, the new economy, technology— are playing out on the stage of one l’il school in Northern Virginia.

And boy was that stage rocking. My favorite part was the eight-foot diameter mandala of corn and sand and beans layed out on a tarp in a far corner of the gym, with bunches of dried red peppers and bowls of bananas within the concentric circles. The flaming brazier that one of the eighth graders hefted toward the sky during the Aztec dance was a close second, but it did make me a little nervous, what with fire codes and all.

The students performed a series of elaborately costumed dances illustrating the history of their country. First an indigenous ritual, then portly colonial era boxsteps, later caballeros with ten gallon hats two-stepping amidst senoritas swinging their skirts.

Between each act, two girls read introductions they’d carefully copied out on blue-lined notebook paper, identifying in which of the 31 Mexican states a dance had originated, or tidbits about its origin (one polka-inflected strain featured squeezebox and a beat in three). The final number was a karaoke version of a full-throated ballad by a sixth grader who wasn’t afraid to ham it up.

For ambiance, the gym was festooned with flags and posters, not to mention a full- size backdrop behind the stage that depicted a montage of the same rich history traced by the performances. Around the perimeter of the gym were tables, groaning under bounty they had somehow lugged all the way from Guadalajara, including dozens of ceramic dolls showing village girls holding baskets of fruit or trays of tortillas, each one unique. The maiden with a cage of songbirds strapped to her back made it into my office.

In addition to the dolls, the tables held baskets of Mexican sweets, unfamiliar to our kids but obviously prized by the Tepeyac students who lingered near the tables after their performances. There were chunks of what looked like beeswax riddled with dried fruit, which turned out to be a form of sugar. Other candies looked like lady fingers wrapped in small tortillas or rice cake-shaped patties of seeds.

Strewn amidst the baskets of sweets were wooden toys and photo books and beads and magnets and… well, you can imagine. An embarrassment of riches, every bit of which, to our surprise, they announced at the end of their performance was a gift of friendship to the students of Congressional.

As well as dancing for us, the Mexican students fit a rich itinerary into their weeklong visit, including DC sights, a day of classes with their epals (Congressional students who take Spanish), a quick jaunt to Luray Caverns, and even—for most of the kids—their first snow. A March storm had closed school the day they were originally scheduled to perform.

Chaperones marveled over our male elementary teachers and were excited to learn about Elluminate videoconferencing software when they visited our computer lab. One of two brothers who owns the school was among them. Having inherited a single school from their father, the founder, they have grown Tepeyac across four campuses, two in Guadalajara and two in Mexico City, and are opening a fifth next fall in Cancun. Their replicable model seems to have tapped a pent up demand for an upscale independent school experience.

On our side, having recently completed a strategic plan that sharpens our mission to prepare global citizens, this international partnership is only one step. Tepeyac is courting a potential sister school in Shanghai, which could lead to an interesting triangle. And our Head of School has other irons in the fire in terms of global connections which might offer expanded opportunities for our students and the school in years to come.

For now, our Mexican friends have left a strong impression. One mother I talked to said her daughter has decided she doesn’t want to take Latin in the seventh grade after all—she wants to stick with Spanish. They’re a tough act to follow, but I hope she’ll have a chance to practice it when we visit IT in the future.

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