Gethsemane Lutheran School opens its doors to international students
The United States is often called the “land of opportunity.” While it might be possible for some Americans to miss seeing the opportunities available, a foreign exchange student from the Hunan Province of China is experiencing them — at the tender age of 8.
Meet Jim Xie (pronounced shāy), a bright, outgoing boy attending Gethsemane Lutheran School in Maplewood, Minnesota. His path to his front-row desk in Janet Hansen’s first-grade class at the small school was long and winding.
It started in mid-2009, when Xie’s parents, who felt their son would receive a better education in the United States, asked Xie’s aunt and uncle, Fenlan Xie and Jay Wettlaufer of Lake Elmo, to provide a home for him while in school. Fenlan, Jim’s father’s sister, immigrated from China nearly 23 years ago.
The second hurdle was obtaining a school-issued I-20 permit, which must accompany an F-1 student visa for any international student. It is common for high schools and post secondary schools to offer I-20 permits. However, because the demand is much less for young students to study internationally, few primary schools have undergone the process.
In the fall of 2009, the Wettlaufers asked Gethsemane to undergo the process to be able to issue I-20 permits. Jay Wettlaufer said, “We were looking for a Christian school because our faith is an important aspect of who we are and how we live. We were hoping to find a Christian school that would deliver a quality education and also assist in developing Jim’s understanding of our faith.” Xie’s religious heritage is a combination of Buddhism and Christianity.
Gethsemane’s focus of developing students spiritually, academically, physically, and emotionally, combined with smaller classes, was a good fit with the Wettlaufers’ criteria.
Bringing a new student on board
Ultimately, Gethsemane’s school board approved the pursuit, believing the enhanced learning experience foreign students could bring to the school would be worth the time and $2,300 investment. Because Gethsemane is only a few blocks from 3M, the board sees potential for the company’s international employees to enroll their children in the school while they work in the Twin Cities.
According to the school’s principal Judy Hinck, the involved process required the school to demonstrate longevity — not a problem for the 70-year-old school — and academic standards, easily met by sharing the school’s accreditation documentation. An official from the Department of Homeland Security conducted a site visit in the spring of 2010 and later that summer, the school received its certification.
In addition to qualifying the school, the Wettlaufers’ financial provision for their nephew was also evaluated. After clearing the U.S. hurdles, it took an additional three months for China to approve Xie’s request to study abroad.
Young Xie arrived at Gethsemane in mid-September not knowing any English. Hansen prepared for his arrival by teaching her class hand signals and assigning Xie with two “buddies,” who would welcome him and teach him school protocol.
Even without a shared language, Jim Xie is developing friendships quickly, building on common experiences in art exercises, gym class, and field trips.
“Having Jim in our class has given us so many great teaching moments — about acceptance, about culture, about geography,” Hansen said. “It’s been wonderful.”
Even with 35 years of teaching experience, Hansen admitted that Xie is sharpening her skills. She spends much time helping him with pronunciation and interpreting the pictures that he draws. When it comes to math, however, he needs little help as his math skills are advanced beyond the other first-graders. Ultimately he will join the second- or third-graders for math. But, for now, Hansen, Hinck and the Wettlaufers have decided to keep him with his class until he gains more confidence in other subjects. In the meantime, Hansen gives him worksheets tailored to his skill level.
To help him learn English, the Wettlaufers put common words and phrases on a deck of flash cards — one side English, the other Mandarin — to help Xie communicate with others. Two retired teachers each volunteer twice a week to tutor him. Everyone knows it will take time for him to become proficient in English. While he’s progressing rapidly, District 622’s English as a Second Language specialist suggests it could be up to two years before he speaks English fluently in social settings.
Even without a shared language, Xie is developing friendships quickly, building on common experiences in art exercises, gym class, and field trips. When Hansen asks students to pair up to read a classroom lesson together, half the class clamors to be Xie’s partner. They’re drawn to him because of his cheerfulness, and likely, his differences.
Universal expressions, like unadulterated joy and mutual encouragement demonstrated through laughter and gestures, become the children’s shared language. Every day, Xie goes to school to benefit from the opportunity given to him, all the while unaware of the learning opportunities he’s providing others at Gethsemane — Jim Xie’s little “land of opportunity.”
Amy Lewis is a freelance writer and principal with Renown