China’s burgeoning metropolis of Chongqing is an ocean away from Jasper in both the literal and figurative sense, but something that remains the same, regardless of geography, is the nature of children.
“The cultural differences are vast of course ... but the one thing that stood out to me is that kids are kids wherever they are,” said Jasper Elementary School principal Raymond Blanchette-Dubé after returning from a trip to China last month.
Blanchette-Dubé was one of 10 delegates from the region who travelled to the world’s most populous country in May, as area school divisions continue to strengthen ties with a Chinese counterpart in the city of Chongqing, population 29 million.
The Beibei Education Commission and three Alberta school divisions – Grande Yellowhead, St. Albert Protestant and Grande Prairie – have been fostering links with one another since last year. A group of principals and administrators from Beibei schools travelled to Alberta in November and dropped by Jasper Elementary as part of their visit, where Blanchette-Dubé gave them a tour.
In May, the roles were reversed and it was Blanchette-Dubé, along with nine other principals and superintendents from Alberta, who were being shown around schools in China.
The Jasper principal said one of the most striking differences was the size of the schools in Chongqing and the number of students per classroom.
“The smallest class size I saw was 45,” he said. “In high school, some would be as large as 79 – one teacher, no teacher assistants.”
Most of the campuses Blanchette-Dubé visited had 2,000 or more students – a far cry from the 235 kids at Jasper Elementary.
The local principal makes a point of knowing every student in his school but said that’s just not feasible for his counterparts in Chongqing. He does have one thing in common with them, however.
“Principals all have to teach at least one class – one subject,” he said. “I found that interesting.”
Blanchette-Dubé teaches music at Jasper Elementary, in addition to his administrative duties.
Other notable differences include the fact that Chinese children begin a sort of “pre-kindergarten” at age three, and that many students’ parents have to pay tuition and have their kids compete for the privilege of attending a particular school.
“If you live within a certain radius of the school you do not pay tuition,” Blanchette-Dubé said. “If that school has a higher profile, if you’re out of the zone of it, you have to write an entrance exam and pay tuition. The competition is quite steep.”
With strengthened relationships between Beibei and school divisions in Alberta, the next step will likely be further visits, followed potentially by teacher and ultimately student exchanges.
“They might be sending a delegation or two to Canada in the fall,” Blanchette-Dubé said. “And, potentially, we may be looking at having Canadian teachers going there in the spring next year.”
The cross-cultural co-operation fits with the mandate for Jasper Elementary, he added.
“We have such an importance placed on global education for our children, and this just brings it to the forefront,” he said. “If we get students coming from China or teachers coming from China, they get that global perspective right there.”
Blanchette-Dubé recorded plenty of video and still photos of his experience and shared them with his music class after returning home. He said one of the things that struck the local kids was the level of discipline that Chinese children exhibited during their classes.
Outside of class, however, the Chinese kids revealed a more playful side. Blanchette-Dubé recalled one moment, in particular, as the Canadian and Chinese educators gathered with students for a group photo.
“There were a bunch of Grade 8 students behind us doing, you know, the peace signs and the bunny ears and the photographer was getting a little riled up about it,” he said. “But we were laughing about it because that’s what kids in Canada do, too.”