International education ? here at home

URBANA - Delphine Mulamba Tshimanga described an Africa that wasn't exactly the world Home Hi Middle School students were expecting.
?People don't know Africa,? Tshimanga told the school's 36 students and their teachers, parents and volunteers who work with the fifth- through eighth-grade girls who attend classes at the school based at Urbana's Wesley Foundation.
?They think of lions,? she said. ?I never see lions in the Congo. My kids see elephants only on TV. There's a big difference between villages and cities. Here, they only show villages on TV.?
Tshimanga, one of the speakers at the alternative school's recent weeklong ?Children of the World? celebration, grew up in Kinshasa, the capital of Congo, a former Belgian colony where the official language is French.
Tshimanga, a lawyer at home, is spending several years in the United States with her family, learning U.S. law codes so she can practice internationally. She told Home Hi students that not all children in the Congo are as lucky as she was.
?In the villages, you go to a small school, but if you want to learn, you must move,? she said. ?If a family doesn't have enough money to send all children to school, they send the boys.?
Tshimanga said she's also experiencing a little cultural shock in the United States.
?Here, they show girls of 15 with babies on TV,? she said. ?And at home, you never leave your parents' home unless you're married. If you live alone, you're a bad girl.?
Brigitte Pieke, executive director of the school, said Tshimanga and other speakers during the week gave her young charges a look at the world that's part of their future.
?We feel we're very privileged, and we need to learn about other cultures,? Pieke said.
Home Hi, which was started by Pieke and Marianne Malone Fineberg in 1993, has grown from a beginning class of nine middle school students to its current enrollment of 36, up from 22 students last year.
The school will hold an open house so parents of prospective students can take a look at the program and the concept from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 28.
?We started the program for our daughters, and it took a lot of experimenting,? Fineberg said. ?We take girls who want to be here, who have a willingness to learn. We have small classes and teachers who pay attention to all the kids.
?It was really important to my daughter to be in a single-sex environment for three years. She gained confidence and didn't lose out during those self-conscious years.?
Pieke said the school teaches the usual academic subjects, but students take regular field trips to learn first-hand about some subjects. They also study French for two or three years and are usually placed in advanced language classes at high schools, she said.
On a major field trip last year, the girls traveled to Quebec City to visit a girls' school conducted in French.
?Our girls are bilingual, and in much of the world, people are,? Pieke said. ?It's an important concept to learn. And it's important to them to visit a Canadian province.?
The school also places a lot of emphasis on the arts, a subject Fineberg teaches.
?She teaches them how to see,? Pieke said.
Pieke and other volunteers or employees also teach all students to knit and crochet.
?Education is not just for math and science,? she said.
And all students learn to play recorders so they can work together in groups, a teamwork concept Pieke believes is important.
Last year, the students planted a garden and held a pesto dinner because their basil crop was bountiful. Pieke said they'll fine tune that project this year.
Eva Kammel teaches computer sciences and math.
?Computer programs are another language,? Pieke said.
Kammel has forged ties with a University of Illinois program called LINC for Learning in Community, and engineering students put together curriculums to teach Home Hi students special skills. Eighth-graders do a fuel cell unit, and fifth- and sixth-graders learn robotics.
?We asked the computer engineering program for help, and this got started,? Kammel said. ?They wanted to get girls involved in these subjects at an early age. Now other departments are involved.?
The school is integrated internationally but not racially, and Pieke would like to see more diversity. She said parents can reduce tuition by volunteering and teaching, and many of them do.
Maria Salova, 12, of Savoy, is spending her first year at Home Hi.
?It's a lot better than school last year,? said Maria, who wants to be a biologist. ?Classes are small, we take field trips and it's easy to know everyone.?
Alexis Georgiadis, who is planning to go to medical school, said her favorite subject is French, but she's also interested in sciences and just about every other subject.
?I didn't know anything about the Congo before today,? Alexis said.
?We learn something from every speaker, and that's good,? Maria said.
Their knowledge of French came in handy during Tshimanga's visit because when her knowledge of English ran out, she lapsed into her native French.
?There are 52 countries in Africa, and we are bigger than the U.S.,? she said. ?We are black in Africa, except in South Africa which is black and white. And we don't speak the same languages.?

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