- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 23, 2005

The number of educational events hosted by embassies for area schools amounts to a cultural Little League without a name.

Whether it is the Embassy Adoption Program begun by the Washington Performing Arts Society (WPAS) to match participating schools with a different embassy each year or independent programs and visits, diplomatic missions pursue outreach with a kind of athletic zeal.

There is no stated competition, and “prizes” are somewhat elusive — a better understanding of foreign countries and their culture. A representative of the Austrian embassy goes a step further when he says his country’s tourism authorities see a payoff to the outreach in an increasing number of visitors from the United States over the years.

“It does happen. People request information by e-mail. … Classes come. They plan trips and want ideas,” says embassy press secretary Johannes Christoph Meran with unabashed pride in his embassy’s activities.

“Very often schools have a topic to study European countries,” Mr. Meran says. “I make a quiz with them when they come. I do my propaganda,” he says, laughing.

Such cozy relationships with some of the smaller embassies were not always the custom, recalls Susan Deerin, the founder in 1974 of WPAS’ Embassy Adoption Program who since has retired. At the time, she was a District of Columbia Public Schools’ (DCPS) official in charge of finding enrichment activities for some 14 grade schools that fed into two of the District’s high schools, Wilson and Western (now the Ellington School for the Arts), to complement sixth-grade studies of world cultures.

“I thought embassies were untapped, so I went to the 14 largest ones in the [Department of State’s Diplomatic List],” she says.

Eventually, the program was expanded to include 50 schools in the city’s four quadrants. That gave her the idea of reaching out to some lesser-known Latin and African embassies, many of which told her at first that their mission was to build relations with the American government, not schools. Then she read that Patrick Hayes [the late WPAS founder] had formed a women’s committee to be a deliberate reflection of the city’s demographics.

She says Alexine Jackson, committee head at the time who is still a philanthropic powerhouse, embraced her idea, saying, “Honey, we would love to help you, because, frankly, we are sick of just raising money.” Committee members used personal contacts to come up with 40 matching embassies the first year. Members serve as liaisons to arrange visits of cultural attaches to classrooms. WPAS performing artists now often conduct residences in schools as well.

Embassies and schools are matched each fall for a program that begins in January, culminating with a performance by students put on in the chosen embassy each May to show what they have learned. The audience for these programs usually includes the ambassador or his or her spouse. In addition, students are eligible to participate in a Mini-United Nations General Assembly held each spring and centered around debate on issues such as global warming and world population trends.

“Back then, there was a less clear delineation in what was meant by performing arts,” says Doug Wheeler, WPAS president emeritus, explaining why a performing arts programming agency was involved in embassy outreach. “It was more a cultural thing. But with time, the importance of children learning about other countries has become more important. … It has gotten to the point where a VIP from another country chooses to go to the school.” He cited the time when a Canadian prime minister visited Washington and attended the school studying Canada on a day that had a televised hookup between the class here and one in Canada.

The DCPS-WPAS partnership is just one of many, albeit one of the most ambitious. Less formal, independent visits to embassy chanceries and cultural institutes take place throughout the school year, often supported by local foundations to encourage cultural interchange. Japan’s Information and Culture Center and the Mexican Cultural Institute are two of the most active and accommodating.

Mexico, for instance, will invite students to attend both a rehearsal and performance of zarzuela music planned in the near future by members of the Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists program. And the first weekend of November, a Mexican cardboard craftsman will give free lessons to children on the art of cut paper and skulls in conjunction with that country’s celebration of the Day of the Dead. Decorative paper cutting and banners is a traditional folk art in Mexico and elsewhere.

Schools make more requests than can be fulfilled to see the French Embassy on Reservoir Road in Northwest, according to Jocelyne Lemoine, the education adviser in charge. Herndon Elementary School was treated there recently with a PowerPoint presentation, tour and lunch featuring a mainly American menu. Next month, Ms. Lemoine is speaking to a District public charter school about Christmas traditions in France.

The Alliance Francaise, the French language and cultural center, three years ago introduced the Anne Bujon Educational Initiative in partnership with DCPS. Named for the wife of a former French ambassador to the United States, the program puts native French-speaking teachers into five inner-city elementary classrooms weekly to offer language instruction, songs, field trips, food tastings and pen-pal exchanges.

As part of the initiative, a French explorer who was in Washington to lecture at Georgetown University, paid a visit to Ketcham Elementary to talk about his life, show a movie taken in the Arctic, and introduce key French words used in his field.

The event was just one of many undertaken by this and other outreach programs intended to help fill the gap caused by cutbacks in funding for foreign language and arts instruction in elementary schools here and elsewhere around the country.


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