It was an uncommon scene in a small classroom in rural Randolph County last week: Four headmasters from China seated at desks with a group of enrapt middle-school students, discussing everything from education policy to Southern barbecue.
The meeting was made possible through a collaboration between the UNCG School of Education, UNCG’s Principal Preparation for Excellence and Equity in Rural Schools (PPEERS) program, New Mind Education and a newly introduced program at the Jack Ma Foundation designed to promote leadership and management skills of headmasters in rural China. The charitable organization was founded in 2014 by Jack Ma, executive chairman of the world’s largest retailer, Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba Group.
Dr. Ye (Jane) He, School of Education Dean’s Fellow of International Programs, Dr. Kimberly Kappler Hewitt, principal investigator of PPEERS and Dr. Carl Lashley, leadership team member of PPEERS, worked with the Jack Ma Foundation to design the eight-day program and manage the schedules of 18 visiting headmasters.
The Chinese educators participated in seminars with experts in school leadership, discussions with experienced school and district leaders and workshops and reflections for action planning. Five partnering schools in the PPEERS project (Franklinville Elementary, Randolph County; Millingport Elementary, Stanly County; Northeastern Randolph Middle School, Randolph County; Bonlee School, Chatham County; Badin Elementary, Stanly County) were selected. The five schools are located in three districts reflecting rural populations in the Piedmont-Triad area, North Central area and Southwest area of North Carolina.
“To prepare global-ready students and lead global-ready schools, educators need to participate in intercultural exchanges,” said He. “Having international educators also concerned with rural education to interact with our rural education leaders in North Carolina brought the global perspective into our local engagement.”
UNCG was chosen by the Jack Ma Foundation specifically because of its work through the PPEERS program. Last year, the NC Alliance for School Leadership Development awarded the university a $1.8 million principal preparation grant to train 20 principals in 11 rural North Carolina school districts.
The three-part initiative involves a selection process, leadership development and application. Each year, the foundation chooses 20 outstanding rural principals and provides them with three years of development and support. Each receives around $70,000 in funding for personal and professional development, school improvement and the overseas program.
The goal of the program is to enhance management of schools and programming in rural China through leadership and broadening the principals’ scope of knowledge.
At Northeastern Randolph Middle School last week, principals met with students and teachers in the classroom and discussed rural education challenges with Randolph County Schools Superintendent Dr. Stephen Gainey.
“I feel like I can learn a lot from the teaching methodology,” said Principal Shaolin Shu. “Especially educating the whole child – we are doing a lot of work on that but lack strategies.”
One of the differences between Chinese and American elementary students, noted Principal Zhenggao Li, is that Chinese children are strong in foundational knowledge like math and reading but need to develop further in creativity and innovative thinking.
“In our schools now, we are working on curriculum to provide opportunities for children to integrate experiential learning to develop creative and critical thinking skills,” he said.
One of the challenges faced in Chinese rural education, said Shu, is that children are left behind while parents migrate to larger cities for work. Children as young as five years old end up living in dorms at school, creating additional challenges for teachers.
“The teacher’s responsibility is twofold,” said Principal Zhanchen Li. “First they are a teacher, and second a parent.”
Tingting Huang, project manager for the Jack Ma Foundation’s Rural Headmasters Initiative, said the visit exceeded the foundation’s expectations.
“What we have learned here can be directly used to guide how we’re going to work on school improvement plans,” she said. “We were very impressed and thankful for the preparation by UNCG. We hope that in the future there is more collaboration between the foundation and UNCG, and I believe that will happen.”
Story by Elizabeth L. Harrison, University Communications