EUGENE, Ore. — For three weeks now, 16 German teenagers have been immersing themselves in the Eugene culture, attending classes at South Eugene High School, living with area families.
They've had the opportunity to share their German culture and history with local students, too, giving presentations in classrooms and just spending time with other students.
"It's really fun," said Tilman Welsch, 16, of St. Wendel, Germany. "My 'family' is great. They took me to the (Huskies-)Duck game, and to the coast. It's a bit different than the German coast, lots of hills."
Welsch speaks a gently accented English, and stops now and then to search for the right word. That's in part what this trip is all about, said Kyle Yamada, social studies teacher at Eugene's International High School, where the German students spend part of their day.
Being immersed in the language you're studying is an important way to gain fluency, Yamada said.
But the second half of the long-running St. Wendel-Eugene exchange, with Eugene students going to Germany in the spring or summer as they have each year for the past 22 years, is unlikely to happen.
The German language program has been cut at South, and the teacher who organized the trips is no longer working in the district.
South Eugene once had a rich world languages department, offering seven foreign languages. By last year, the number of languages had shrunk to four, and the school was in the process of phasing out German, Principal Randy Bernstein said.
The first- and second-year German classes were cut first, he said. This year, the school had planned to offer a combined third- and fourth-year German class for the 18 to 20 students expected to attend. But the number of students wanting to study Japanese doubled to 60, and the district chose to add another Japanese class and cut the German offering because there wasn't enough money to do both, Bernstein said.
The school didn't leave advanced German students completely out in the cold, arranging to get some into University of Oregon classes and others into online offerings, Bernstein said.
Japanese, Spanish and French language classes are still offered at South.
What's less clear is how the loss of German classes at the school will affect the exchange program.
The program is sponsored by the German American Partnership Program, a cooperative effort between the German Foreign Ministry and the U.S. Department of State, with both governments helping cover the costs. One requirement of U.S. participation is that German classes be taught at the host school.
It represents more than the loss of a language program, Yamada said. The exchange also built relationships across borders.
Each group also gets a sense of what school and education are like in the country they visit, Yamada said.
The German students visiting Eugene, for example, have been surprised by the lunch break in the middle of the day, 15-year-old Laura Hams said. At their high school, Gymnasium Wendalinum in St. Wendel, classes end about 2:30 p.m., and after school she eats lunch at home with her parents.
She also has been surprised by the amount of sports available to students.
"My exchange student (partner) plays water polo and she trains every day for three hours," Laura said.
Based on what he has seen in a high school physics class, 16-year-old Philipp Trapp thinks German students are a year or two ahead in the topics they're covering. "I think it's easier here," he said.
Two years ago, the Gymnasium Wendalinum principal visited Eugene and spent a day shadowing Yamada through his classes.
At a roundtable discussion among students and teachers at the end of the day, that principal said he was struck by two things, Yamada recalled.
"He felt the quality of teaching was similar and high … but he was struck by the large difference in class sizes," Yamada said.
German high school classes average about 25 students, but Yamada said his classes sometimes balloon to 50 or 60 students.
"What the principal said he saw was a lamentable lack of investment in education," Yamada said.