ECA, China Sign Arts Pact

Allan Appel Photo Newly successful middle and well-to-do classes in China admire America’s immersion in contemporary art and arts education, and want that for their own children.

That desire was formalized on Wednesday afternoon when three representatives from China’s international education bureau came straight from the airport to Audubon Street. 

There they met with Principal Jason Hiruo and other officials from ACES/ECA (the Area Cooperative Educational Services of Connecticut/Educational Center for the Arts) to sign the first-ever formal partnership between the national Chinese educational ministry and an American public high school.

By terms of the agreement more students from ECA (an afternoon regional arts public high school) will study in China, and Chinese students will come to enroll at ECA. There will be faculty and scholarly exchanges. And summer institutes will take place between the two countries’ students and faculty in areas like painting, music, dance, and theater.

When Hiruo came to helm ECA two years ago, he brought a background in international education that included founding the Newtown Center for International Education (NICE).

“It’s a passion of mine,” said Hiruo, as he waited for the arrival of his Chinese visitors. “It’s our responsibility to prepare our students for their world, which includes cultural competencies.”

Then the three officials arrived: Jin Yunhua, Feng Ruobing, and Liu Xuguang, all from Chivast Education International, an affiliate of the Chinese Service Center for Schoalrly Exchange (CSCE), essentially the government ministry in charge of international educational exchanges at all levels.

After pleasantries, they were whisked in to a meeting to review the agreement, which would be signed over lunch at Mory’s, to be followed by a tour of ECA facilities and a visit to some of the classrooms, with students in action later in the afternoon.

Over the past 15 years, Hiruo estimated about a hundred students and faculty have visited China, mostly on short, approximately 10-day trips. That includes about 72 who have gone to China for short stays. Those kids and their families’ positive experiences motivated the school to establish the formal cultural connection, Hiruo said.

ECA also has established exchanges with two sister schools, the Shangai Theater Academy and the Beijing Music Conservatory. Four students from the Shanghai school are coming to study at ECA in September.

This agreement formalizes and expands the relationship, Hiruo said.

Under the arrangement, American middle and high school students get to go to China in greater numbers — as well as meet Chinese students here — developing their cultural competencies. Chinese students see and experience American creativity in the arts close up, while they’re young.

While the arts in China are now more part of the curriculum than they have been in the past, those arts are largely traditional, not contemporary, Jin said when he and his colleagues emerged from the meeting.

Liu said that when he and his colleagues studied as kids in the 1980s, arts were minimally offered, only as enrichment. Chinese students then, and now, focus primarily on academic subjects for their crucial high school entrance exams.

And yet those parents who have attained a measure of economic security now want arts, creativity, and enrichment for their kids.

“They see it as a way to develop reflection and creativity, to express themselves beside the traditional arts, ” said Hiruo.

Hiruo had visited the Chinese officials twice over the past two years and this February as an exhibitor at an expo for international schools in Beijing, hundreds of families lined up to speak with them, he recalled.

“We want our students to experience what yours do [in arts education],” Hiruo paraphrased the gist of the most frequent conversations at that gathering. “When will you bring ECA to us?”

Under the new partnership, the first group of international faculty — teachers of theater, dance, music — will be going to Nanjing in August.  Hiruo estimated that international students would be enrolled at ECA by 2018, and in the summer of that year, an institute for ECA faculty and international students convened.

The partnership with China is only a beginning, a model, frame, and template for a growing international division at ACES/ECA. There are already plans forming for similar relationships in Germany and Spain among other countries, said Hiruo

ACES is a regional educational organization that operates five public special education schools and three magnet schools. The latter includes the arts high school,  ECA in New Haven, which draws about 300 students from the city and surrounding towns who test in based on their skill and passion for the visual arts, theater, music, dance, or creative writing.

The new international programs will have “no impact on spots for local students,” said Hiruo. “Our priority is still our local school districts.”

The international students will pay tuition and will do their academics separately at ECA, in the mornings. Art students from the districts arrive at ECA for classes beginning at around 1:00 p.m., and the international students then join in.

As the Chinese officials were about to go off on tour of the ECA campus, which includes the former Lincoln Theater and the newly acquired John Slade Ely House, Liu pronounced his first impressions of New Haven: “Quiet, a typical American town,” which reminded him of Cambridge, in the U.K., which he has visited often to develop international programs there, he added.

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