Ailing school district seeks Chinese help

Updated: 2014-12-01 12:10

By Paul Welitzkin in New York(China Daily USA)

  Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

If you are in charge of a struggling urban public school district, where do you turn for the financial help to put your district on a sustainable path?

For Joe Watkins, superintendent of the Chester Upland School District outside of Philadelphia, it's a private school in South China. Watkins is preparing to travel to China soon to seek a partnership with the Shenzhen Yaohua Experimental School in Shenzhen, South China's Guangdong province.

"I hope to leave right after Thanksgiving to meet with President Tian Guilian at the school," Watkins told China Daily. Tian toured the Chester Upland schools back in September and October, according to Watkins.

Watkins was appointed by the state and the courts in 2012 to oversee the Chester Upland district, which ranks academically among the lowest performing public school districts in Pennsylvania. He is trying to craft a financial and academic recovery plan for Chester Upland.

"The median income for a family of four in our district is about $26, 000," said Watkins. The US Census Bureau said the median income for a four-person family in Pennsylvania was $83,730 in 2013.

"I want to develop a partnership with the Shenzhen Yaohua Experimental School," he said. "This school has been successful in sending their students to some of the top schools in the US, so obviously they are doing something right."

Ailing school district seeks Chinese help

Watkins believes that students in Chester Upland, the majority of which are African-American, can benefit from an instructional program that may include Mandarin. "Since we are in a global economy, our students need an education that will prepare them to succeed in that type of economy," he said.

Previous news reports have indicated that Watkins hopes to raise as much as $1 billion. He wouldn't commit to a specific figure but he has established a priority list if his fund-raising proves successful.

"We would look to the Chinese to help us build new buildings or at least improve the ones we have. I envision a school where our students have access to the latest technology and an exchange program that would enable them to study in China," said Watkins, who is one-quarter Chinese.

"The state has sent me here to make a difference," he said. "I am looking for ways to lift our district. Right now many of the students in the community attend charter schools. I want to change that and the only way I can do that is by offering the best instructional program."

Tian mentioned to former Pennsylvania Congressman Curt Weldon that he was seeking a sister-school relationship in the US. Weldon then introduced Watkins to Tian.

The Shenzhen Yaohua Experimental School website shows modern buildings on a well-landscaped campus. Shenzhen's existing sister schools include the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston and others in Canada and the United Kingdom.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, an assistant principal at the Houston school said the relationship with the Shenzhen school ended about eight years ago.

Watkins also hopes to find investors in China interested in turning around Chester Upland using the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Visa Program which can become an alternative way to obtain a visa. With a minimum of $1 million - or $500,000 in low employment or rural areas - an EB-5 investor must create at least 10 full-time jobs through the project they are working toward completing. In return, the investor is eligible for permanent US residency.

Meanwhile, it appears that state education officials are less than thrilled that Watkins is spending money from a struggling school district on his trip. "It's money that should be used in the district for the benefit of students," the Inquirer quoted Tim Eller, a spokesman for the Department of Education.

(China Daily USA 12/01/2014 page2)