- The Washington Times - Monday, May 20, 2002

Three sixth grade classes from the District's Murch Elementary School have been to Malaysia twice in the past two weeks. They went by bus. Malaysia, of course, is in Southeast Asia separated by ocean waters and many thousands of miles from the school on 36th Street Northwest. But the country's new embassy on International Court Northwest technically territory belonging to each of the foreign diplomatic offices resident there is less than a mile's distance.
The students were among this year's participants in an ambitious project, the semester-long Embassy Adoption Program, sponsored by the Washington Project for the Arts in cooperation with D.C. Public Schools. Each year, as many as 60 classes from different schools work with embassies to immerse themselves in knowledge of a country's people and culture.
Embassy sponsors may change each year, but not the overall format. A mini-United Nations General Assembly with debates on global topics is part of the plan as well.
Since January, three Murch teachers have had the help of Malaysian Embassy representatives in teaching the students Malay songs and dances and guiding a variety of instructional projects. Embassy staff came to the school twice weekly for an hour the last six weeks. The students showed off what they had learned May 10 during a first visit to embassy grounds, where they were given brightly colored and patterned costumes supplied for them by the embassy individually measured and marked by name.
Then last Wednesday they repeated the program in front of Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who was on his first visit to Washington since 1984.

Having D.C. schoolchildren meet a world leader in this fashion is unusual even by the high standards of WPAS' Embassy Adoption Program, which has involved some 30,000 young people and 99 embassies in the past 27 years.
Expanding student horizons is one of the obvious goals of the program, even though Murch is something of a mini-United Nations itself, with a student body representing some 40 different countries. One soloist for the embassy performance was born in Bosnia, another arrived only this year from Nigeria. Many of the students' parents work for international agencies. Even so, they admit their eyes were opened by the short-term experience of "pretending" to be a native of another land.
"I've learned how diverse the country is," said Cecila Miles, 11, waiting with her shoes off as required before going onstage May 10. "It's nice to have both a dry season and a rainy season." Her special topic was Malaysia's food, which she researched for a school "mini-museum" presentation.
Genevieve Allen, 12, was intrigued by the number of endangered animals in Malaysia, citing "the purple heron, the flying lemur." Others in the class made puppets to illustrate two Malay folk tales, "The Coconut Tree" and "Outwitting the Crocodile." All 58 students sang folk songs in Malay and performed some characteristic dance steps and movements.
Murch sixth graders last year studied Singapore, but the teachers found the degree of the Malay embassy staff's investment of time and energy to be unusually high. "I've become very intrigued by the country and its incredibly rich mix of nature and beauty," commented teacher Nancy Martell-Stevenson, who also had been given a Malay dress to wear for the occasion.
The May 10 audience was mainly embassy staff, at least one of whom was moved to tears witnessing the children's poised and moving performance of folk stories and songs. (Several Malay adult dancers also performed, with the embassy political and information officer acting as master of ceremonies) Students had memorized the country's national anthem as a surprise for their hosts.

Educational outreach has been the norm of WPAS from the beginning. Best known for decades as a key presenter of concerts by top-flight performing artists, the nonprofit organization has sponsored artist appearances in area schools since 1966. Its outreach efforts with schools include residencies, assigning professional artists to work in schools for short periods of time; a string competition for players in grades six through 12; and the well-known Children of the Gospel Mass Choir. Concerts in Schools alone has reached more than 250,000 young people in the Washington area.
"Patrick Hayes [WPAS late founder] wanted to have a strong educational enrichment element for young people because there was nothing in the city no specific programs for kids in schools," says Douglas Wheeler, WPAS president since 1982.
The embassy program, which Mr. Wheeler calls "unique," came about largely through the initiative of Sue Deerin, then an enrichment coordinator with D.C. Public Schools.
"I just thought it so important for American children to learn about the world," she says. She turned to the WPAS Women's Committee set up by Mr. Hayes and asked for contacts with embassies.
"The women said they would love to help. They were sick of just raising money and wanted to get out and be with kids."
The program started out as an exclusive project of D.C. Schools through a federal education grant, and by spring 1983 Mrs. Deerin had lined up 50 embassies and 50 schools. The District still contributes funds, but she describes the program as basically "teacher driven" and tied to a District-wide sixth grade course whose textbook is titled "The World." Embassy Adoption, which teachers take on as a team in addition to their regular work, requires a concentrated month and a half direct study on a single country, according to Murch teacher Avis McCoy.
"We begin by talking how different and then how similar the country is with their own. And we make them [students] do research on the Internet that helps with study skills," she says. Without that, she adds, children may have misguided impressions. In the case of Malaysia, "they [may] think of rain forests but not of urban areas."
If the Murch students didn't know it before, they know now that Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia a tropical country the size of New Mexico and rich in natural resources is the site of the tallest building in the world, the Petronas Towers. The country itself, with a population of over 23 million, is part of an island and part of a peninsula and is a amalgam of Chinese, Malay and Indian ethnic groups.
Embassies always had had requests from urban schools and other jurisdictions asking to visit, says Mrs. Deerin, noting that embassies "are not interested in that. They want children to study the country and present what they have learned." This way, too, diplomatic staff work is recognized.
Initially, it was only European countries with larger embassies that volunteered. Diversity is the norm now. This year's participating embassies included China, Mexico and Australia. Only sixth graders are involved, because, in Mrs. Deerin's words, "kids at that age are very appealing. They are still forming opinions about what they are doing in life. Teens are too cool to do this."

Sixth graders are cool in other ways, as their actions at the embassy showed. During rehearsal, Stan Teicher, 12, managed with aplomb to hold up a trouser costume that kept slipping down. Neither he nor any of his classmates broke step. And they stood solemnly at the program's end to present a handmade framed portfolio of Malaysian batik prints to embassy officials as a token of thanks for their cooperation.
"The great paradox is that back in the 1960s a wonderful arts and music program existed in public schools," notes Mr. Wheeler, discussing the impact of WPAS' many outreach efforts. "Today when the local art scene is booming, school cutbacks make this more important than ever."
Carmen Boston, head of the organization's nine education programs, expects to increase their initatives in a way that relates directly to areas of study in the school system's curriculum. "In discussing the Silk Road, for example," she says, "a musician would show how the road influenced different melodies."
Chinese-born piano prodigy Lang Lang, 19, a recent graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, will be working with District school pupils for a week next April at the time of his Washington debut recital in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
Mr. Lang, who electrified the audience in his performance at the WPAS May 4 gala that raised a six-figure sum for education, says, "Young people may need some young people in front of them playing. They may say, 'I want to be a pianist.' Just like when watching TV, they want to be Tiger Woods. I want to speak as a real person, not as a music-making machine."

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