MANATEE -- German students on their fall break from school have chosen to attend classes at Southeast High School, and while going to school during fall recess may not seem like a vacation, for 22 visiting students from Gelsenkirchen, Germany, it has been a real break.
German students study 12 subjects a week, speak at least three languages, including their native tongue and mandatory English classes, and do more homework from one class than most Southeast students receive during a school day.
Still, Southeast High School students are looking forward to spending their summer breaks in their German counterparts' classes.
It's all part of an exchange program started by a president most participants are too young to remember.
President Ronald Reagan, famous for his speech at the Berlin Wall, began the German American Partnership Program to develop a relationship between young Americans and Germans.
It is a government nonprofit funded by the Department of State. Participating students pay for flights and visa fees at a reduced price with no agency fees.
Visiting students stay with a host family. Students submit applications to determine compatibility through questions such as interest in sports, if they have any siblings or pets and music tastes.
Southeast High teacher Patty Haeussler is the American coordinator for the program. Connie Klasener from the Max-Planck Gymnasium, a school for gifted students, is Haeussler's German
Germany students are in their final week of the three-week foreign exchange program.
Southeast High School students will spend three weeks in Germany in June.
Klasener said the visits are based on the school calendars.
"They come from Germany during their fall break," Klasener said. "Americans have to go on their summer break. When they do, school in Germany has not ended yet."
The Germany American Partnership Program has been working with Manatee County Schools for 10 years. Southeast High School and the State College of Florida Collegiate School are the two official "gap schools" for the German American Partnership Program, although other schools can participate. Haeussler said the program complements Southeast's international baccalaureate programs.
"It's an opportunity for both students," Haeussler said. "It gives them a different perspective on the world."
Manatee county students do not have to do much more than express interest and enthusiasm in the program to be accepted.
Haeussler said there used to be a bigger pool of students to enter into the German American Partnership Program when Southeast High School taught German. Now, she said, it can be difficult to find enough host students in Manatee County.
"We are always looking for new students," Haeussler said. "It always works out, but it is more difficult to get them here than in Germany."
Klasener said she has to limit the number of German students. She usually gets around 60 applicants but can only take between 20 and 25 students.
"It is important that the students show social responsibility," Klasener said. "It is good if they have worked for school committees or have had leadership."
German student Hanna Knudsen said she joined the program because she loves to travel.
"It is a great experience to meet other people in another country," Knudsen said.
German student Leon Rembrink said the program is helpful foreign language practice. Klasener said exchange students are not supposed to speak German during their visit to America.
Most exchange students are 15 years old and visiting America for the first time. They attend classes and normally shadow their American partner.
"Sometimes they can go to a different class just to have the experience, like a drama class or a film class," Haeussler said. "The teachers have been great about allowing them and welcoming them."
Klasener said the program is also an extension of language studies.
"In Germany, students start learning English when they are 6 years old and continue through 12th grade," Klasener said.
The Manatee County students will also shadow German students when they visit in June.
"It is interesting for them to see the difference between scheduling and the subjects," Klasener said. "We have way more subjects -- 12 subjects per week."
Klasener said her students take English and at least one other language such as French, Latin or Italian.
"It is the result of being a student from a much smaller country," Klasener said. "If you want to communicate with other people in Europe, you need to speak more languages."
Rembrink said he brings home a heavier work load from his school in Germany than the teachers assign in America. Rembrink also commented that American publics schools are much larger than schools in Germany.
Haeussler said students go on trips with the German American Partnership Program. For her students, the trips to Germany help bring history lessons to life.
"They are impressed with cathedrals," Haeussler said. "The layout of the city is something they studied in class."
Haeussler said visitors can see cages once used to torture people in the medieval ages in some cathedrals.
"It is strange to see the contrast of the old and the new," Haeussler said. "It is over 1,000 years old, which is hard for some students to imagine."
Germany students toured the Ringling College of Art and Design and the Ringling Art Museum, the News Channel 8 studio, Egmont Key and Seaworld. They also experienced Halloween and Southeast High School's Homecoming.
"Halloween is just now starting to be popular in Germany," Klasener said.
School-based athletic teams and "schools spirit" are also unique for visiting students.
What German and America students talked about the most, however, was food.
Knudsen and Rembrink said they have not tried the cafeteria food.
"I'm not homesick, with the exception of the food,' Knudsen said.
Klasener said students in Germany get longer lunch periods and are allowed to leave campus.
Southeast High School host students Mackenzie Goda and Jason Thomas said they are looking forward to trying German cuisine.
Goda has never been out of the country, and Thomas has never traveled to Europe. Goda and Thomas are hoping to learn some basic German when they go in June.
"We do not speak the language, so we are at a disadvantage," Goda said.
Klasener said students in the program stay friends, and many revisit each other.
Thomas and Goda said they will be sad to see the visiting students go.
"I'm adopting Leon," Thomas said.
Klasener said the departure for home is the most difficult part of the program.
"Whenever they go back, whether from America or Germany, they are crying," Klasener said. "They don't want to leave, and they tell us it has been the best part of their lives."
Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.