Aylia Black wasn’t prepared for how fast the plane would zoom down the runway during takeoff. Or for how small Washington would look below her as the plane rose into the sky. The 13-year-old rarely traveled outside of the District, and now she was heading to Costa Rica. It was her first flight.
Aylia made the journey last month with 18 other D.C. eighth-graders, the first wave of an ambitious new program that will send abroad 400 eighth- and 11th-graders from D.C. public schools this summer on weeklong, all-expenses-paid trips.
When she arrived in Costa Rica, the air felt different. Everything felt different, actually.
“I could breathe better,” said Aylia, who will attend Duke Ellington School of the Arts this fall.
She was mesmerized by the sparkling blues and greens of the water. On a series of zip-lines, she sailed high above the lush rain forest. She met Costa Rican kids, and they chatted in broken English and broken Spanish. She ate rice and beans but took a pass on grilled iguana. There’s only so much adventure an eighth-grader can handle.
Her mother, Melanie Black, said the trip wouldn’t have been possible if not for the fully funded program, which covers passport and visa fees, airfare, meals, supplies and lodging. Though her daughter was away just a week, Black said she’s noticed a change.
“She’s definitely a little more independent,” Black said. “She has an older sister who she stays really close to, but this gave her a chance to be on her own.”
Aylia’s experience — and those of her fellow student-travelers — is why outgoing D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson is so keen on the DCPS Study Abroad program and why she hopes to expand it so all of the system’s eighth- and 11th-graders who are studying a world language can take part in coming years.
Henderson says that travel-abroad programs — and the opportunity to explore a different culture and meet people from different backgrounds — have typically been available only to students from affluent families. She wants to make travel abroad an option for all District students, many of whom are from low-income families and don’t have the means to fund their own travel.
“I’ve been dreaming of this program my whole entire life. To have the ability to make it a reality is the ultimate,” said Henderson, who announced Wednesday that she plans to step down in September after heading the school system for five years.
Henderson, who traveled to Spain to study while in high school and to Venezuela when she was a student at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, wants the travel-abroad program to become a staple in District schools. She hopes it will have an impact long after she’s gone, in the same way her travel abroad still enriches her.
“Those experiences completely changed my life,” Henderson said. “I know what the power of language and study abroad can do for regular little neighborhood kids like me.”
The $2 million DCPS program is the first fully funded study-abroad program of its scale in a public school district. This summer, it will send District students on 19 group trips to 13 countries in Central America, South America, Europe, Africa and Asia. Money for the program was raised through the D.C. Public Education Fund, which solicits private funding to help pay for initiatives that are priorities for the city’s public schools.
“If our children can master standardized tests but they can’t operate in the world, then we haven’t done them a service in terms of their education,” Henderson said. “So this is as important as anything they do in a classroom.”
Anis Hassan, 13, will be a freshman this fall at McKinley Tech. The trip to Costa Rica was also his first time flying. He was thrilled to have a passport, something he said he’d always wanted. The only thing that worried him was the possibility of being bitten by “weird bugs.”
He, too, loved riding the zip-line and swimming in a pool and driving around volcanos and seeing the beautiful beaches with no one on them.
But what stood out to him most was meeting Costa Rican students at their elementary school.
“They didn’t really have very much. Just the basics,” Anis said. “But I noticed how they didn’t complain at all. I told myself I need to stop complaining.”
Mike Patierno, one of the two adult leaders who accompanied the students on the Costa Rica trip, said he was able to watch the kids as a world they had only read about or seen on television became real.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect, but they were all just so excited,” said Patierno, who teaches health and physical education at Kramer Middle School in Southeast Washington. “They handled the whole trip beautifully.”
In addition to seeing a new country, the students also were required to speak Spanish as much as possible.
“The kids really hit the language hard,” Patierno said. “Every day, they were getting more comfortable listening to Spanish and speaking it.”
Henderson relishes the rave early reviews of the trips from students and parents. But she knows that for the program to have staying power, it will need to prove as helpful to students as she and other educators believe it to be.
D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who heads the council’s Education Committee, said he thinks it is wonderful that the private sector has funded the study-abroad program. If it can be shown to have significant and lasting benefits, he said, he would consider funding it through the schools budget.
Henderson believes the benefits will soon become readily apparent and expects that studies will show that students who participate in the program will outperform their peers who do not.
“If we can do that, we should be able to make the case for why this should be a standard line item in the budget, and I’m going to push for that as well,” she said. “I’m not going to allow money to be a barrier to what I believe is an incredibly important educational experience.”