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Sisters at Last

Great Falls Elementary School officially welcomes forms official sister school relationship with the Hiroshima Kake Educational Institution.

In the mid 1980s, U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10th) and his then staff member M. Evan Corcoran decided to do some research to try and discover the underlying practices of successful corporations around the world.

"The common theme was the utilization of language and culture to develop friendships with one another," said Wolf.

This finding inspired Wolf to look into ways for Fairfax County to further incorporate language and culture into its school curriculums. The result was the creation of the Japanese Immersion Program at Great Falls Elementary School.

"The studies show that students who speak foreign languages do very well," said Wolf.

Since 1989, students at Great Falls Elementary have participated in its Japanese Immersion Program. All students spend a portion of their class time learning about Japanese culture, as well as learning math, science and health in Japanese.

LAST FRIDAY, the school took its program one step further when Great Falls Elementary principal Dorothy Clark, Deputy Superintendent of Fairfax County Schools Brad Draeger, and CEO and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Hiroshima Kake Educational Institution Kotaro Kake, all signed documents recognizing Great Falls Elementary's official sister school relationship with the Hiroshima Kake Educational Institution in Hiroshima, Japan.

"Today we are celebrating that we have found this school, and that we have this new relationship with them," said parent Patricia Barber, a co-chair of the Japanese Immersion Program.

The official sister school is Eisugakkan Elementary School, a private school that is part of Hiroshima Kake Educational Institution in Fukuyama City. Students at the school learn English beginning at the elementary school level — a practice that is unusual in Japanese schools.

At the special school assembly for the sister school signing ceremony, Draeger encouraged students to learn at least one other language before they graduate from high school.

"Most of the students in the world know two languages," said Draeger. "We in the United States tend to use the term 'foreign language,' but actually, the more accepted term now is 'world language.' As you grow up ... you are going to realize the importance of knowing other languages."

THE ASSEMBLY was attended by several local officials, including Wolf, Dranesville District Supervisor Joan DuBois and Dranesville District School Board Representative Jane Strauss. In addition, representatives from the Hiroshima Kake Educational Institution, and Japanese political figures traveled from Japan for the event. Students dressed in traditional Japanese garb and performed two Japanese songs for their guests.

"We have learned that the younger you learn to speak other languages, the easier it is to pick up other languages," said Strauss, who told students that she never even heard of any language other than English when she was growing up in Wisconsin. "It is better — it makes you smarter, and it makes you more a member of the global community."

DuBois shared her own personal language regret with the students.

"When I went to elementary school I learned Polish because I spoke it with my grandfather," said DuBois. "But after my grandfather died, I stopped and I no longer speak the language, and it's really kind of sad. So I encourage you to keep studying Japanese and to keep immersing yourself in the culture."

According to Paula Patrick, foreign language coordinator for Fairfax County Public Schools, there are currently 11 languages offered at schools throughout the county — including the recent addition of Chinese, thanks to the efforts of Wolf. At Friday's signing, Patrick told students that they should take advantage of the fact that their youth provides them with greater learning ability.

"Don't just learn one foreign language," said Patrick. "Learn several foreign languages and learn them before you become an adult because you will have a step up."

She added that connecting with other cultures would prove helpful in future relationships and job opportunities.

"Now with this sister school, it's like bringing Japan into your school," said Patrick. "I don't want you to ever say, 'well they can just learn English,' because when you say you are going to learn another language, you are saying 'I care about you, and I want to learn about your culture.'"

GREAT FALLS ELEMENTARY school and the Hiroshima Kake Educational Institution were brought together by Yukio Tada, senior vice president of the Sojitz Corp. of America in Washington D.C. Speaking at the ceremony, Tada mentioned his previous visits to Great Falls Elementary School.

"I brought so many gifts — textbooks, notebooks, videos. But this time I brought no gift because I bring much more important things ... and that is friendship," said Tada.

Akie Abe, wife of Shinzo Abe, the Chief Cabinet Secretary of Japan, also attended Friday's event.

"Last year when your students were in Japan they mentioned that they were looking for a sister school, and I am so happy that I was able to help with that," said Abe, speaking through a translator. "The Japanese students love America, and I hope that you too will also come to love Japan, and I hope to see you in Japan soon."

AS PART of the Japanese Immersion Program, sixth grade students are given the opportunity to travel to Japan in the summer. Parents and teachers are hopeful that the newly created sister school relationship will make these annual visits even more interesting for the students.

"This will give us the chance to go to the same school every year and really get to know the students," said Jean Sammarco, a parent and co-chair of the Japanese Immersion Program.

Kotaro Kake told the students that before he left Japan, he informed Eisugakkan Elementary School students about the planned signing ceremony.

"They are so looking forward to meeting you," said Kake, speaking through a translator. "While exchange programs are much more common now than they used to be, it is still unusual to have a relationship between an elementary school and another elementary school."