Andrew Black had never been on a plane and his traveling experiences had been limited to car trips in the United States.
But this summer, the rising senior at Coolidge High School in the District of Columbia traveled to Spain and the Netherlands, an experience he may have never had if not for an ambitious study-abroad pilot program the district has launched.
“It was really impactful,” said Andrew, whose interest in visual arts was solidified when he saw how Spain’s art was influenced by crosscurrents of cultures and religion. The student, who lives in the northwest Washington neighborhood of Takoma, was particularly struck by the intricate architectural details of a mosque that had been taken over by Christians. His tour group traveled to the Sagrada Família, a massive basilica in Barcelona designed by Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí that has been under constant construction since the late 1800s.
“There’s a lot of diversity in terms of religion and architecture,” Andrew said. “The Muslims and Christians... all ruled Spain at one point. It’s all mixed together in the architecture.”
Andrew was one of 400 8th and 11th grade students the school district sent on fully paid international trips to 12 countries this summer, including China, Costa Rica, France, Italy, and Nicaragua.
The mission, spearheaded by soon-to-depart Chancellor Kaya Henderson, is to eventually send every District of Columbia public school student on two study-abroad trips before graduation, using private contributions to underwrite the effort. The scale of the undertaking is unusual; if the district reaches its goal, it will coordinate travel for about 5,000 students a year. And the pilot is already drawing the attention of other school systems.
“I started talking about this a couple of years ago, and I think my team thought I was bananas,” Henderson said. “But if these things were possible and easy, then everyone would be doing them.”
The trips, to countries that correspond with students’ language courses, combine two goals: exposing students to global ideas and providing previously out-of-reach opportunities for low-income children.
D.C.’s public schools have worked in other ways to build a “more global” education for students in recent years. Elementary schools offer at least 45 minutes a week of world-language instruction, middle schools offer language classes in every grade with the option of earning high school credits for some courses, and high schools provide Advanced Placement language courses.
The district’s schools also partner with 65 embassies located in the nation’s capital to expose students to other cultures.
Research shows that lower-income students often fall behind their wealthier peers in out-of-school exposure to enriching activities like travel, theater, and museum attendance. Advocates have called the concept “the enrichment gap,” which can exacerbate the poorer academic experiences of lower-income children, who are more likely to attend schools with fewer resources.
Authors of a 2013 study found that, as overall income inequality has expanded, the gap between what wealthier and middle-class parents and poor parents spend on their children for such activities has widened even more.
Using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found that between 1972 and 2007, “enrichment spending” more than doubled from an average of nearly $3,000 per child per year to more than $6,000 per child per year for parents in the top income decile. In the same time period, enrichment spending for parents in the lowest three deciles remained relatively stagnant, at around $1,000 per child per year, researchers found.
And because of schools’ “pay to play” policies that require students to ante up fees, as well as money for equipment and travel, lower-income students are missing out on opportunities to grow their engagement, persistence, worldview, and social-emotional skills, Harvard University professor Robert Putnam wrote in his 2015 book Our Kids.
Henderson, who is stepping down from her role as chancellor Sept. 30, agrees. She remembers her own experiences traveling to Spain in high school, which gave her a chance to flex the Spanish language muscles she’d been building.
“It was completely eye-opening and perspective-changing for me,” Henderson said. “I wanted to bring that experience to our kids in Washington, D.C.”
Around the country, nonprofit organizations team with high schools to offer low-income students chances to travel internationally in small groups. But, if D.C. schools succeed in expanding the program districtwide, it will be unique in scale and scope.
Organizers of the District’s program raised money to cover all costs, from lodging and transportation to passport fees, for participating students. The district also paid for aides to travel with students who have special needs covered by an individualized education plan and covered the costs for teachers and district staff to chaperone trips.
And school district officials arranged for some students, whose families rely on their children’s summer income for support, to receive $11.50-per-hour minimum-wage pay during their trips through the city’s summer youth-employment program.
The pilot, which drew about 1,000 applicants, cost $2 million, and students with limited international travel experience were given priority, said Tre Jerdon-Cabrera, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Public Education Fund, which helps raise private donations to support district initiatives.
Organizers are planning trips for 500 students next year at an estimated cost of $3 million, she said.
And though Henderson led the charge to start sending students on trips at a large scale, fundraisers plan to continue the work after her departure, Jerdon-Cabrera said.
Students returned from this summer’s trips with photos and videos they shot with district-provided GoPro cameras. They will be required to share their experiences with classmates through projects and presentations, and some have already contributed to a group blog.
On a trip to Beijing, 8th graders felt like celebrities, they wrote on a blog, when locals asked to take their photos, they learned about student-led demonstrations at Tiananmen Square, and they took rickshaw rides. In Costa Rica, juniors visited a farm where tayota, a squashlike crop grows, they painted a mural with local youths and cooked on outdoor stoves.
On Andrew’s trip to Barcelona in June, students learned to barter at a market, giving them a chance to practice their Spanish skills. “I’ve taken Spanish for three years, but I was still terrible when I went,” he said.
One of Andrew’s key memories was learning about Great Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. Being closer to the people affected by the vote made it more meaningful, he said. He also took in little differences, such as the dry air and the use of olive oil in almost every food he ate.
In Amsterdam, Andrew and his travel group visited the house were Jewish Holocaust victim Anne Frank hid from the Nazis.
“I learned that there’s always someone trying to make the world better,” Andrew said, describing his big takeaway from the trip.
Those sorts of experiences are what Henderson envisioned.
“Many of our wealthy kids would have international experiences whether we provide them or not,” she said. “But so many of our kids would never have this experience if we didn’t provide it.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2016 edition of Education Week as Trips Abroad Expose D.C. Students to World