by Mitch Lehman
Two San Marino Unified School District parents, who claim they represent others of a similar mindset, complained to The Tribune that administrators did a poor job of informing families of Tuesday’s visit by a delegation of approximately one hundred and fifty students and chaperones who toured Valentine Elementary and Huntington Middle Schools.
Stephanie Giordina and Lora Wagner – mothers of Valentine students – feel the school should have sent out prior notification that the elementary and middle schoolers on a mid-winter trip to the United States from their home in Harbin City, would be interacting by entering classrooms and recreating on playgrounds.
Giordina was miffed she had to find out from her son on Monday night that the delegation was coming to town.
“We didn’t know anything,” Giordina said. “where they were from, what they were doing. It was a complete mystery.”
Both parents challenged the wisdom of bringing visitors to the schools considering a recent measles outbreak as well as other safety concerns, including the possibility chaperones might not have been properly screened as well as the final destination of a proliferation of photographs that were being taken throughout the half-day visit.
But Superintendent Alex Cherniss strongly defended the visit and the district’s handling of the matter, declaring, “It’s great for our students to see kids from another country and for students from another country to see us.”
Of the concerned parents, Cherniss said, “I am happy to hear their concerns and we will gladly get them all the information they are seeking.”
Tuesday marked the second consecutive year the Harbin City group visited Huntington and Valentine and San Marino School Board member Chris Norgaard – who arranged the visits through a connection at Cal State Dominguez Hills – told The Tribune that “possibly a half dozen more” have visited SMUSD campuses since the program was implemented.
Norgaard also said that the visitors had received “double immunizations” and were screened through the Chinese Embassy.
The delegation is also accompanied by two full-time doctors.
“I am very comfortable with the way things went,” Norgaard continued. “At one point I saw on the playground two elementary school students, one from San Marino and the other from Harbin City [distinguishable by their orange jackets] walking next to each other. It’s great. There is no health concern. This is to show educators and students what our school looks like on a daily basis. Furthermore, I have never had any negative reaction to this program.”
Until Tuesday, that is.
Giordina and Wagner questioned whether administrators asked the Chinese visitors to comply with district policies regarding the distribution and publication of photographs that include San Marino students.
Wagner wondered if teachers at Huntington and Valentine adjusted homework assignments and test schedules during the four-day week to comply with the change in classroom instruction time caused by the visit.
“Certainly this wasn’t a surprise visit,” said Wagner. “It doesn’t take much effort to educate the families. There was no constant contact from the school. Nothing. Crickets. This is bad communication and is insulting when we are inundated with requests for money and other support. All we are looking for is some basic information that could have been put together in less than an hour. Families should have been notified in advance. It behooves our community to know when a cultural exchange is taking place and those who want to be involved can be involved.”
Giordina said the tour took valuable preparation time away from her children, who have a major project due on Thursday. The San Marino Unified School District is closed Friday and next Monday for President’s Day weekend.
Assistant Superintendent Gary McGuigan said he “understand[s] that parents might have concerns.” McGuigan spent most of Tuesday morning and early afternoon verifying that the visiting students had been properly immunized and stated that chaperones from the Chinese delegation were never alone with San Marino students.
Colleen Shields, principal of Valentine Elementary School, did not immediately return a phone call from The Tribune.