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New Literacies Collaborative Celebrates 10-Year Partnership, Anniversary for Suzhou North America High School During Recent Trip to China

A group of students sit around a table of laptops in a library Play Video

After four years of connecting remotely through virtual trainings, virtual meetings and cross-cultural virtual exchange programs, the New Literacies Collaborative (NLC) at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation visited Suzhou North America (SNA) High School in Suzhou, China at the end of October 2023 to not only celebrate the school’s 10th anniversary but also to mark a 10-year partnership.

“A 10-year partnership is an achievement in any line of work; it’s even more impressive in the context of an international university-school partnership,” said Marie Himes, director of the NLC and research scholar at the Friday Institute. “Director Wang Bintai, Dr. Lisa Wang and Dr. Hiller Spires established a strong foundation and shared vision that has served us well in sustaining this partnership. Collaborating and co-creating with the leadership, faculty and students at SNA for nearly a decade has meant that we collectively value the relationships and shared knowledge that is evolving and growing through this partnership and that we are willing to navigate speed bumps along the way in pursuit of our shared vision and goals.”

Founded in 2013, SNA educates students who plan to enroll in top international universities; the school utilizes a curriculum, co-constructed with the NLC, that combines rigorous academic standards with scaffolded opportunities to cultivate students’ creative thinking and problem-solving skills.

In 2012, Wang Bintai and his daughter, Lisa Wang, contacted then-director of the NLC, Hiller Spires, to see if she would develop a concept for a state-of-the-art high school in Suzhou, China. Wang Bintai was familiar with Spires’ work on innovative digital learning with teachers at Beijing Royal School, one of the top international high schools in China. He believed that Spires’ unique perspectives on educational innovation could help inspire the creation of SNA. Spires’ research team helped create a shared vision with SNA leadership for the design of the school, specifically for a state-of-the-art facility, an innovative curriculum and a teacher professional development program for their staff. Over time, the NLC facilitated partnerships between additional global school partners, including Wake STEM Early College High School, Person Early College for Innovation and Leadership, Stough Magnet Elementary and other schools in the United States.

“I’m proud and humbled to have created this partnership over a decade ago,” said Spires. “As I’ve said many times, it’s one thing to create a partnership but it’s quite another thing to sustain a partnership over time.” The creation of the school and the partnership with SNA is documented in a chapter in Spires’  book, Digital Transformation and Innovation in Chinese Education, published by IGI Global. Spires continues to serve as honorary principal for the school.

Now, SNA has 1,200 students and 210 full-time teachers. In recent years, they have obtained 32 national invention patents co-created by students and researchers affiliated with the school, won the Suzhou Science and Technology Innovation Mayor Award in 2022 for their on-campus research and development labs that provide real-world research experience for students, and was recognized locally for this work with a city designation as an incubator for future scientists.

A scientist in a lab coat shows an experiment on a lab table as Himes and Bausell look on with awe and surprise
Himes and Bausell visit SNA’s nanotechnology lab to learn more about a recent patent and meet with student scientists.

“During the last 10 years, this journey [was] not easy,” said Carolyn Gao, assistant principal at SNA. “There are many challenges and difficulties ahead of us, like admission, research and development, personalized schedules, counseling services and resource offerings, but all the persistent efforts and commitment bring us good results.”

Given public health concerns and travel restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Friday Institute’s partnership work with SNA shifted to being fully online. In this remote environment, the NLC sustained the facilitation of their Project-Based Inquiry (PBI) Global program with students and staff at SNA. The growing access to information and communication technologies also opened up an opportunity for the NLC to expand their student program offerings to include cross-cultural student virtual exchanges. Additionally, during the pandemic, SNA teachers expressed needs for professional development that addressed self-care and mindfulness for educators, student-centered pedagogies, impact-driven teaching, social and emotional learning, best practices for teaching and learning with multilingual learners and integrative STEM. In response, Spires, Himes and Sarah Bausell have offered monthly online professional development sessions for SNA teachers beginning in the 2020-21 school year that continues today. 

During the challenges of the past four years, the ability to stay connected online has been mutually beneficial. 

“Engaging with SNA educators and students has provided me with the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of Chinese culture and contemporary educational practices,” said Bausell, NLC team member and research scholar at the Friday Institute. “This opportunity has boosted my cultural competence and led me to fresh perspectives about global challenges and innovations in both secondary education and teacher education. It feels energizing to collaborate with a team of leaders and educators who are always reflecting and iterating based on student needs.”

Once Covid-19 travel restrictions were lifted, Himes and Bausell knew they wanted to be in Suzhou to celebrate their decadeslong partner.

“Reconnecting in person after four years of exclusively working together online was a joy!” said Himes. “Having the opportunity to work with the SNA leadership team, teachers and students face to face allowed us to connect with one another in ways that can only be approximated online. By being together in Suzhou, we were able to reaffirm our partnership in authentic, relevant and restorative ways.”

A group of students surround a tree filled with red origami hummingbirds
SNA students’ hummingbirds created to raise awareness and pledge action toward meeting SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation

Not only did Himes and Bausell get to connect with their SNA partners after years apart, but they also had the opportunity to be at SNA while classes were in session and interact with students. Historically, NLC visits to Suzhou happened before the school year and focused on professional development with teachers. This time, they continued their work with teachers both in the classroom and during SEL-focused professional development sessions. Additionally, they had the opportunity to co-present with participating students and teachers on their PBI Global and cross-cultural student virtual exchange partnerships, lead an interactive session for students on higher education in the U.S. and meet with 11th grade students for feedback on their college application essays and for coaching support regarding the U.S. higher education admissions process. They bookended their trip with high-level meetings with SNA school leaders to share updates and plan their co-constructed next steps for their university-school partnership.

Marie Himes, a woman in a blue shirt and braid, advises a student while they sit on seats in front of a low table
Himes provides conceptual feedback on a personal essay to an SNA senior hoping to study at an international university

“It is more like a family reunion,” said Gao. “It‘s been 10 years [of partnership]. We are not just co-workers, online or offline; we are a family. We firmly believe that we can do more for the students because we have the same [educational] value[s].”

A group of educators in front of a large graphic 3-D sign that says I Love SNA, PBI Global, Social and Emotional Learning, Cross-Cultural Virtual Exchange in both English and Mandarin
Marie Himes, Sarah Bausell and members of the SNA leadership team

The NLC will continue supporting teachers and students at SNA toward engaging in and with progressive pedagogies and connecting and collaborating with educators and students in North Carolina and beyond. They are providing consultative support in leading-edge educational innovations, such as AI in education, and working with school leadership in a continuous improvement process. Eventually, the partners want to bring SNA teachers and students again to North Carolina for cross-cultural immersion learning experiences.

“I have been able to tap into and grow my passion and expertise in global education, cultivate lifelong friendships with educators halfway across the world and develop meaningful learning experiences with students in China and North Carolina,” said Himes. “With our organizations’ shared foci on educational innovation and student-centered learning, I look forward to the next decade of partnership between the Friday Institute’s New Literacies Collaborative and SNA.”