Challenger K-8 could play host to group of middle-school students from China

Published Sept. 20, 2013

BROOKSVILLE — It would be an unprecedented student exchange for Hernando County schools.

As early as this January, up to 60 Chinese middle school students from an elite boarding school in Beijing could be walking the halls of Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics, soaking up American culture and sharing their own as part of a cultural exchange program.

"I'm honored and privileged that we would be selected … to house this program," said Challenger principal Michael Maine. "It's a really big thing for Hernando County."

While the district has participated in exchange programs in the past, this one is different for several reasons: the large number of students involved; the fact that it involves middle school rather than high school students; the length of the program; and the fact that the visitors would be coming from China.

"At the middle school level, it's never been done," Maine said.

The students all would come from the Beijing New Talent Academy, a K-12 boarding school that was founded in 1995 on the eastern outskirts of the city.

By all accounts, these kids are bright — and fluent in English.

Maine said the education system in China is more advanced and that the curriculum is "much more rigorous than ours in the United States."

That's especially true at New Talent Academy.

The students are predominantly the sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers, and tuition runs $30,000 a year, Maine said. The median average income in China is $9,000, he said.

Challenger was chosen because of its reputation as a high-performing school.

The proposal went before the Hernando County School Board last week, where it received a preliminary green light from board members. It will need to go before the board again for final approval.

If approved, the exchange would last nine weeks, from January until March.

While Challenger can accommodate up to 60 students, Maine said the more likely number would be between 35 and 40. All of the students would live with Challenger staffers, a decision that was made to eliminate security concerns and make the commute to school easier.

During their stay, the Chinese exchange students would follow the same routine as their American counterparts.

They would follow a middle school schedule, participate in classes, do assignments and take tests.

"They want to experience our curriculum," the principal said. "If they don't, then they're just sitting there."

The students would not receive any grades and would not get credit. Considered visitors, they also would not affect classroom enrollment numbers.

District curriculum supervisor Jeff Yungmann told board members on Tuesday that the program will not cost the Hernando school district anything.

"It's a win-win situation," he said.

Maine said most of Beijing New Talent Academy's high school students come to the United States to tour universities, trying to get a foot in the door. The younger students have been "crying out for more exposure" to America and its education system, he said.

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"The middle schoolers have been asking for more opportunities to become enriched in the Western culture and have many questions," he said.

Maine said this would be a special opportunity.

Challenger, he said, would create opportunities throughout the day for the students to intermingle. There would be activities before and after school, and presentations would be infused throughout the curriculum.

Maine said he would like to see the program spread to all grade levels at the school.

Eventually, he hopes students from Hernando will get an opportunity to go to China.

"That is Phase 2," he said.

Contact Danny Valentine at or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.