Officials can't say exactly why, but the D.C. school system's tiny international program office suddenly is being bombarded with requests from other countries that want to establish exchange programs with the city's schools.
In the last month alone, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, Spain and Bangladesh have joined more than a dozen other nations that have sought to send students and teachers for an educational experience in the nation's capital.
"I can hardly keep track of all of them," said Assistant Superintendent Marilyn Tyler Brown.
But most of the requests will have to wait, Brown said. This year's bigger-than-ever exchange calendar is nearly booked.
From September to June, District schools will be host to more than 150 students and educators from 10 countries, and at least 120 District students and educators will travel abroad.
The stream will start shortly after school begins with a contingent of 25 students and educators from Senegal, who will visit for a week. By mid-October eight District students will begin a six-week orientation program before leaving for a three-week stay in Israel.
"It pushes you to the limit," said Cheryl Matthews, who, as the schools' international coordinator, is responsible for keeping the exchange program running smoothly.
The District's international exchange program began 12 years ago when the District and Israel traded five students for a week. Canada and Britain joined a few years later, and in the last two years the program has blossomed.
Brown attributed the growth in part to growing awareness of the global economy and the rise of democratic movements throughout the world. "It may surprise some people to know how sought-after the District schools are," she added. "Our visitors like what they see."
Most are interested in improving their English skills, she said, and many choose the District for the experience of living with black American families.
Many have very specific objectives. Educators from South Korea, for example, are interested in how District schools discipline students without corporal punishment. Eastern Europeans want firsthand experience with democracy.
For District students, the trip abroad often is their first time out of the country -- and sometimes the first time away from home.
The students and teachers compete for the exchange slots. Students must have good grades and leadership ability, while teachers have to show how they will use their experience to help students.
Educators visiting South Korean schools next spring plan to observe the country's highly successful vocational education program. More than 90 percent of the program's graduates qualify for skilled jobs.
Most District exchange students are high school juniors, but some elementary school students participate in an exchange with Turkish students. Last year each city high school sent at least one student abroad.
The District's exchange program operates on a small budget. The $27,000 authorized for this year provides almost enough funds for students' airfares; the rest is subsidized through corporate and nonprofit donations. Teachers pay their own travel expenses. Costs are kept down because exchange participants stay with host families.
The family experience is part of the benefit, Brown said. "If Americans and Arabs had been getting to know each other like this over the last few years, we might not be having the trouble we're having now," she said.
School Superintendent Andrew E. Jenkins has said that he is committed to expanding the program. He and an assistant paid their own expenses when they traveled to Seoul last year to sign the agreement for the South Korean exchange.
"We are preparing our young people to be citizens of the world," Jenkins said. "Every experience with international visitors or in foreign countries makes an invaluable contribution to their academic and personal growth."