SPRING HILL — The 54 middle school students peeked nervously out of the tinted glass windows as the white tour bus came to a halt near the front entrance at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics on Tuesday morning.
They were running late.
Groggy and sleep deprived after nearly a day of travel, layovers and delays, the exchange students from the Beijing New Talent Academy in China hopped off the bus and took their first steps in an unprecedented cultural experiment involving the Hernando County School District.
The students quickly formed four neat lines facing the school, taking in their surroundings and the gray, overcast skies. Many were decked out in colorful hats, backpacks and fanny packs. Some snapped photos with their cellphones. Instructors, both from China and Challenger, swirled around them, unpacking luggage and making introductions.
"Did you guys have a good trip?" asked social studies teacher Chris King, who helped coordinate the exchange.
The students stayed silent, looking on shyly.
"Who speaks a little English?" he tried.
A few raised their hands.
He asked how many hours the flight was from Beijing to Detroit.
"Thirteen," one girl answered.
"Fifteen," said another.
The exchange is new to Hernando County on several fronts. Never before has the district been involved with an exchange of this size, or at the middle school level or with China.
It has had the school abuzz for days.
"I think talking to students from a different part of the world is fascinating," said 14-year-old Brittany Wey, a Challenger eighth-grader. "I just think that it's cool."
"I just think it's awesome that we can be able to do this," said sixth-grader Max O'Rourke, 12.
Both students are part of the school's ambassador program and have been learning some basic Chinese — "Hello," "My name is ... ," "I speak a little Chinese." For the two months the exchange students are here, it will be the job of the ambassadors to help them adjust and feel comfortable at their new school.
During the time they're at Challenger, the Chinese students will be split up and placed in classrooms throughout the school, participating in classroom instruction and assignments. For five periods, they will be soaking up the English language and American culture. They will spend one period each day with the Chinese instructors from the Beijing New Talent Academy, a K-12 boarding school that was founded in 1995 on the eastern outskirts of the city.
The exchange is being paid for by the Chinese academy. All of the Chinese students will stay with families associated with Challenger or the Hernando school district.
Many of the students are interested in attending a Western university someday.
Challenger students will gain firsthand exposure to students from a culture unlike anything they've seen in Hernando.
Challenger teacher Jason Kean, who also helped coordinate the exchange, said the program will give the American students an "understanding of Chinese culture you can't get in any kind of book or classroom."
He also hopes it will create lifelong friendships among the kids.
Fong Qi'An, who goes by Sherry, sat in the media center at Challenger on Tuesday morning. She was tired, but excited to start her adventure.
"I think American studies are very useful for our life," the 14-year-old said.
Lu Lengrui, 13, sat quietly with a book and confessed that he was a bit nervous, but happy to be in America for the first time.
He said he wants to study English.
Speaking shortly after the students settled into their seats in the media center, Challenger principal Michael Maine, who later plans to visit China, welcomed them to the school. A student stood next to him, translating.
Almost a year in the planning, Maine said everyone was excited about the exchange.
"We want you to feel at home here at our school," he said. "We want for you to feel as though you are part of our family."
Danny Valentine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.