Tarpon Springs Elementary students got to hang out and chat with some new friends in Greece last week — and they never had to leave the library.
About 50 students' smiling faces, waving hands and questions traveled via video chat to an elementary classroom at the School of Halki, named after its home on the island of Halki, one of Tarpon's four sister cities.
Conversation between the students started out slowly — they seemed unsure, nervous — but curiosity eventually got the best of them.
Tarpon students started by asking Greek students what kind of music they like and if it snows where they live.
"In case of emergency, how do you get off the island?" fifth-grader Danisha Huerta-Charrez asked.
When Greek students questioned what Tarpon students had eaten for lunch, they were met with puzzled faces and giggles. While it was 3 p.m. in Greece, students in Tarpon Springs had just eaten breakfast.
More questions about weather and favorite school subjects and recess fired back and forth for a while. Some conversation, like an exchange of students' names, proved the differences between the two cities, but most questions were simple, typical kid queries that showed student's their similarities — all exactly what organizers say they hoped for.
"We didn't want them to feel like they had constraints on what they could ask," said Juli-Anne Hipp, media and technology specialist for the school. "We gave them curriculum on Greece, but it was up to them to come up with their questions."
Mayor Chris Alahouzos used his fluent Greek to smooth out the language barrier during the video call and explained that the Sister Cities program is an agreement to share resources in education, culture and economic development. Tarpon also partners with three other cities: Kalymnos, Larnaca and Symi.
"We thought since we have such a good program between Tarpon Springs and those areas, we should try to create sister schools by forming a friendship between students where they can share ideas and learn more about each other's culture," Alahouzos said.
The mayor explained that more video chat sessions will happen throughout the next school year, and students will be assigned pen pals. Students in Greece will also soon gain access to more than 10,000 e-books owned by the Pinellas County School District.
Hipp said when school and city leaders came to her for help in somehow bridging the geographical gap between the schools, video chat was the first thing she thought of.
"We are always trying to bring technology into play for our students and expose them to it more," she said. "Plus for them to be able to see each other and communicate as if they were in the same place is big."
She said some of the e-books the Greek school will get access to will be able to be translated into their language. Others will offer an audio option, which could be useful for students trying to learn English, and a dictionary feature students can use to gain more knowledge about words they are unfamiliar with.
"We are really trying to grow the partnership between our city and that area even stronger," the mayor said. "This allows us to do it by enriching the language and culture between us."
Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153. Follow @mreeves_tbt.