School district wrestles with access to ‘signature experiences’
Fifteen rising Beacon High School juniors and seniors returned from Germering, Germany earlier this month, completing the first year of an exchange program that began when their German counterparts traveled to Beacon last fall.
The Beacon students, who came home July 9, spent two weeks abroad and visited Munich, Süssen and Dachau, the first concentration camp established by the Nazis. Their home base was Max Born Gymnasium, a secondary school in Germering, just west of Munich.
It was at Max Born that Jürgen Biffar and Thomas Schneck, the founders of DocuWare, a document management firm that celebrated the opening of its North American headquarters in Beacon this month, met as students. While German is not taught at Beacon High School, Kelly Ellenwood, the outgoing president of the parent-teacher-student organization (PTSO) at the high school, said that Schneck approached her in 2018 about setting up an exchange program.
“A lot of European schools, they go all over the place,” Ellenwood said this week. “The No. 1 thing they want to do is go to New York.”
Ellenwood crafted a proposal for DocuWare, which agreed to fund about 20 percent of the cost of an exchange program for Beacon students for three years. (The company also contributed to the cost of sending German students to Beacon.)
The remainder of the cost was borne by the students’ families or generated through fundraising, such as a concessions booth at West Point hockey and basketball games. Some funding also came from the German-American Partnership Program, which helps schools coordinate exchange programs, said Ellenwood, who participated in a “transformative” exchange program with a school in Finland when she was 17 and hosted a German student last fall.
There are plans for Max Born students to again visit Beacon this fall, she said. The PTSO also hopes to organize another Beacon-to-Germering trip next year while Ellenwood drums up local business support. An information session for interested students will be held the week of Aug. 21. Students or parents can email [email protected] for details.
“We’ve created this great network of families” that hosted students in Beacon and/or sent students to Germany, Ellenwood said. “I feel like it’s going to continue to grow if we can keep doing this.”
The program operates independently of the Beacon City School District, which cannot contribute financially because it would be unfair to subsidize an optional trip for a handful of students, said Superintendent Matt Landahl. Instead, the district is focused on expanding what it calls “signature experiences” that impact larger numbers of students.
He pointed to a sailing trip on the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater for fourth graders, a longstanding overnight camping trip for fifth graders and a Washington, D.C., trip for eighth-grade students as examples of what the district funds either completely or in part. In addition, every 11th grader had a chance to visit Ellis Island last year — a trip that had been only open to advanced-placement students.
A number of parents and students spoke to the school board about the German exchange program during a board meeting last month.
Josephine Mallon, a rising junior, said she found “lifelong friendship” when her family hosted a Max Born student last fall. “I’m so thankful that I got to meet her through this program,” Mallon said.
Sarah Lynn Jafaar, who will also be a junior, described learning about another culture through the student her family hosted. “It was amazing to be able to learn that from another person,” she said. “I know most people in the program felt that way.”
While board members said it was unclear if they were being asked for funding, the parents and students said they hoped the exchange program would continue. Afterward, Landahl acknowledged the challenge of trying to provide equitable access to extracurricular experiences.
“We have many students who have never stepped foot onto a college campus until late into their years in the district,” and others who have never been to New York City, he said. “These are things that also concern us, that we want to try as a district to start addressing. That’s going to take up an enormous amount of resources.”
The district is open to exchange programs for countries where Spanish or Italian is spoken, because both languages are taught at Beacon High School, the superintendent said. But if those opportunities arise, the district would not be able to pay for students to travel internationally.
Karen Decandia, a Rombout Middle School teacher who is the coordinator of the district’s world language department, is planning to take about 50 students to Costa Rica next spring. As with the Germany trip, the district will not pay for students who choose to travel with Decandia.