With only two years of Japanese high school left, Elise Smith was nervous about introducing herself to students in an algebra class in Tokyo last February.
But over the next several days, between excursions to historical shrines and villages, home stays with local families, and cooking classes, Elise and her seven classmates from Renaissance High School got the chance to practice their language skills and experience some of Japan’s historical and cultural attractions as part of an excursion organized by the school. .
“This is the first time I’ve really gone somewhere and experienced something new,” said Elise, 16, a Renaissance student.
The Detroit Public Schools Community Circle has committed to expanding these opportunities for high school students to travel abroad and restoring extracurricular programs that have been largely stripped of emergency management. The school board is set to approve funding for trips to France and Spain this summer.
But as the next school year approaches, the district is talking about canceling these programs as it prepares for the end of federal funding for COVID relief, and international travel may once again be out of reach for many students.
Superintendent Nikolai Viti said, “Without COVID funding, it’s hard to justify district funding for international student trips when we’re cutting back on school and district positions.”
In recent years, before COVID halted much student travel, DPSCD helped fund international student trips by dipping into its general fund and using federal Title IV dollars.
In 2019, the district sponsored 54 students to travel to Italy. Students represented high schools from around town, including Renaissance Applied Schools and Cass Technical High School, as well as neighborhood schools such as Mumford and East English Village Preparatory Academy in Finney.
District funding “has ensured the participation of students from neighborhood schools where the concentration of low-income students is higher and these experiences are less likely to occur,” Viti said.
The DPSCD’s Department of World Languages has relied on these international trips to help increase enrollment in honors and advanced world language courses, according to a recent report.
This school year, the district has taken advantage of its share of federal COVID money to bridge budget gaps caused by inflation and low enrollment. But COVID aid is running out now, and it will all be allocated or expended by the start of the next school year. The resulting budget adjustments will mean that fewer students have access to special programs such as international travel.
Prior to becoming superintendent in 2017, Viti said, students could participate in international travel sponsored by the school or district, but those trips were usually funded by wealthier families or through private donations and fundraising.
For example, bands from Detroit’s Martin Luther King Jr. High School traveled to Beijing to perform at the 2008 Summer Olympics and to London for the 2012 Summer Olympics. In both cases, the students raised money for travel and lodging costs.
Outside of these trips, Viti said, most schools did not have the resources to send their students abroad, so only students whose families could afford to travel abroad or find other means would have the opportunity.
Ezra Killen, a junior at Renaissance High School who traveled to Japan with Elise, said more students deserved the chance he and his classmates had to travel. Their week-long trip to Japan was paid for by the Kakehashi Project, a cultural exchange program funded by the Japanese government.
“I definitely think it’s something more students should be able to experience, because we learned so much from that trip,” Ezra said. “And that made us want to continue learning Japanese.”
Elise said she became interested in studying Japanese after her interest in popular TV anime shows such as “My Hero Academia” and “Attack on Titan” increased at the start of the pandemic.
She is already considering returning to Japan, and perhaps teaching English there after college, at the suggestion of her teacher.
“We can be tourists at any time,” said Catherine Davis, a teacher of Japanese language and culture at Renaissance High School. “We can go to any country and see the sights, eat and shop in stores. But interacting with people is really what makes these experiences special, especially for kids this age.”
Ethan Pacoley is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at firstname.lastname@example.org.