A Latvian Teacher's American Experience

By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 6, 2008

Having access to computer printers, televisions and photocopiers is nothing new for educators in Manassas.

That is, except for one: exchange teacher Inta Gertnere, who, after two months of teaching, is still astonished by the wealth of resources at her fingertips as an educator in the United States, she said.

"I still can't believe how well equipped the classrooms are here," the Latvian native said. "We have very limited access to technology in Latvia. We run out of ink or paper. You have to be very flexible at home, because you never know what resources you will have."

Gertnere is teaching at Osbourn High School this year as part of the U.S. State Department's Fulbright Program. The 46-year-old, who teaches English for Speakers of Other Languages, recently briefed the Manassas School Board about her experiences at the school and her plans to continue sharing her culture with city educators and students.

"I'm very impressed with Inta, and she is a real sharp lady," Osbourn Assistant Principal Eric Barna said. "We are trying to move forward to see what else she can do to bring Latvia here."

The Fulbright exchange program, established in 1946, swaps U.S. teachers, students and administrators with educators and students abroad. Participants switch schools for a year to experience other cultures and strengthen relationships between the United States and other countries, according to the State Department's Web site.

The program, funded primarily by Congress, operates in 155 countries and gives out about 7,000 grants annually. Last year, Congress budgeted almost $200 million for the program.

Participating governments and host institutions help by paying salaries, supplements and tuition waivers, the Web site says.

This is the first time Manassas has participated in the program, thanks to Osbourn ESOL teacher Joy Peters, Barna said.

Peters applied for the program, was matched with Gertnere and is teaching English as a foreign language at Gertnere's school, Riga Secondary School 31 in Latvia.

Prince William County is also participating in the program, sending C.D. Hylton High School teacher Curtis Willoughby to Bulgaria in exchange for Velina Draganova, who is spending the year in the county teaching English.

"This program is teacher-driven," Barna said. "I think this is just the beginning, though, and we'll have more teachers involved next year now that they know what it's like."

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