The classrooms of Prentice High School may be thousands of miles from Zittau, Germany, yet Isabel Dyk and Timmo Naumann are finding a warm welcome in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.
Dyk, an 11th grader, and Naumann, a 10th grader, hail from Saxony in southeastern Germany, and they are the first students to participate in a new foreign exchange program that has been specially designed for Prentice and their home school of Zittau.
The program is a new form of exchange, designed so students miss a minimal amount of school in their own districts yet receive all the benefits of participating in a cultural exchange program.
After undergoing an intensive application process, two students from Zittau High School and two students from Prentice High School will spend approximately a month living with a host family, experiencing a new culture and foreign education system.
As Dyk and Naumann traveled to the United States during their fall break, they will only miss two weeks of school back home in Germany. Likewise, when Prentice students visit Germany in 2020, they will travel in late summer before the start of school.
From an educational standpoint, they lose out on very little classroom time, and gain all the benefits of an international experience.
The program was introduced largely thanks to the influence of former foreign exchange student August Friedrich, who attended Prentice School District in 2014-15.
“He saw what we have here, and realized it's an insight into America that maybe isn't widely seen,” explained Heather Mayer, a high school social studies teacher at Prentice who has been instrumental in introducing the program.
Foreign students visiting Prentice have the opportunity to see a new side to America — not the major cities and skyscrapers that have been popularized in film and art, but the small Midwestern towns that make the heart of the country.
“If you were to go for a year, that might cost $15,000,” said Mayer. “You're gone for a whole year … and a lot of times, you have to make that year up when you return because the foreign credits won't transfer back. With this month, you're still getting a good eyeful of what's going on. You learn what typical family life is like and the only cost is an airplane ticket.”
This first test-run of the program has proved a rounding success, according to both Mayer, high school principal Melissa Pilgrim, and the students themselves.
“I've really enjoyed my time here,” said Naumann, who said their time in the country has passed in a blur of activities and new experiences.
The students have been hosted by the families of Kati Isaacson and Brenda Isaacson, who are both teachers at Prentice and are also sisters-in-law. The close family dynamic has allowed Naumann and Dyk to share many experiences — from traveling to Chicago and the Wisconsin Dells to four-wheeling on Price County’s trails and having a bonfire night.
Since the classroom time in Prentice does not count for Dyk and Naumann, they have had the opportunity to participate in numerous different classes.
In Mayer’s classroom, where students are currently studying Europe, the young Germans were able to provide personal insights into their own country as well as those surrounding Germany. The city of Zittau itself lies extremely close to where the countries of Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic join.
“Our students were able to ask questions about what their food is like or how their education compares to ours,” said Mayer, who said the students have served as excellent ambassadors for their country. “This is a real world learning experience for our students.”
From gym to food class to choir, the Germans have particularly enjoyed what they see as deeply American. Dyk has compiled a few recipes from the food class that she plans to take home and prepare for her family.
“At home, we don't have fun classes like food or choir,” said Dyk.
The educational system in Zittau is more strict, according to the students, with a strong focus on math, chemistry, biology, and physics. They have 16 different subjects they must study every week, with a different schedule each day — ranging from five to eight hours a day at school.
Students in Germany are also required to learn English, and often learn other languages such as French, Russian, or Czech. Spending time in the United States has helped both students improve their English skills, which they said have improved as they use the language every day.
The sports Dyk and Naumann participate in are different from the volleyball games and cross-country meets they have experienced here in Prentice — Dyk enjoys horseback riding, dancing, and climbing, while Naumann plays tennis and swims.
The pair have also observed a close connection between Prentice School District and the local community, where everyone knows one another and is quick to lend a hand. Dyk pointed to the recent community service day when 132 high school students volunteered alongside their teachers to help clean up local residences and public spaces.
“We don't have things like that in Zittau, although it may be because the city where our school is is much bigger,” she said. Zittau has a population of 28,900 compared to Prentice’s 660 citizens.
Naumann also agreed that the outgoing nature of the Wisconsinites he has met is different than is culturally common in Germany, and he has enjoyed the friendly welcome he has received.
Both Dyk and Naumann agreed that their favorite experiences overall have been with their host families, who they described as being tremendously welcoming.
“I really hope to come back someday — especially to my [host] family here. I hope they will come to Germany too, so our families can meet each other,” said Dyk.
When the students return to their own country on Nov. 9 after a month in the United States, they say they will have countless stories, video clips, and photos to share with their families and classmates back home in Germany.
“These students have been very enjoyable, and I'm excited for when our kids will go [to Germany] in 2020,” said Pilgrim. “I think this is a wonderful opportunity.”