Jeanee Brookings could not stand still. An 11th-grader in Washington, D.C., Brookings was living in a homeless shelter with her parents and sister.
"I'm so nervous," Brookings said. "I've never been on a plane and I'm so scared."
It was a week before she traveled to Barcelona. She had never been out of the country before.
Brookings was one of 380 students who went on all-expense-paid trips abroad through D.C. Public Schools this past summer. Eighth- and 11th-graders went to China, Ecuador, France and a few other countries. Many had never left the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, let alone the United States.
The effort is part of a trend to give low-income students access to the same kinds of enriching opportunities wealthier kids get outside of school.
"I really didn't think I was going to be accepted," Brookings said. "I'm in a homeless shelter and I'm going on a study abroad trip? That's crazy."
At a send-off at Dunbar Senior High School in mid-June, then DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson told Brookings, hundreds of other students, and their parents why she is promoting global education: "We know that our job is to prepare you for college, career and life," she said. "Part of life means you know how to communicate with cultures, customs, communities different than your own."
DCPS raised $2 million in private donations through the D.C. Public Education fund to pay for the trips. With that money, the district helped students get passports and paid for their airfare, meals and housing. It even paid minimum wage to students whose families were relying on their summer income for financial support. Many wouldn't have had the time otherwise; they would've had to work.
Savion Gales attends Phelps ACE High School and went to Peru. He visited the Bahamas as a small child, but doesn't remember it well.
"I can't believe they paid for the passport and everything," Yvette Gales, his mother, said. "This is a godsend."
The U.S. Department of State offers high school students some scholarships to study abroad, but they remain limited. Boston Public Schools sends 600 students abroad each year, according to Brittany Calloway, the district's director of Global Programs. But if districts offer anything at all, they mostly rely on a hodgepodge of programs based on the availability of private donations.
The Washington program seems unique for its equity of access, experts said.
Vicki Weeks, a consultant on K-12 travel abroad programs, has been organizing such trips for 20 years. She said she has never heard of a program as ambitious as the one at DCPS: "Usually, only people who are privileged get to do that," she said. "That's just not right."
Others think such programs can close the gap in opportunities among students.
Prudence Carter, Dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of California Berkeley, said education policy experts underestimate the impact on learning of extracurricular activities such as travel abroad. Opportunity gaps constitute part of what causes an achievement gap among students of different races or income levels, she said.
"If those children in D.C. go to Costa Rica, or Paris or London, and they have an 'aha' moment about something ... they see what's possible for them and it can change [their] trajectory," Carter said.
Though the number of U.S. students studying abroad has increased in the past several decades, researchers still know little about its effectiveness, especially at the K-12 level. Exactly how to measure success remains an open question.
"We don't know a lot about the impacts of global education or of study abroad," said Laura Engel, professor of international education and international affairs at George Washington University. Engel is studying the Washington program for its effect on student achievement, graduation rates, college entrance, choice to study abroad again and choice of career.
"Does a one-time trip do it all? I wouldn't hypothesize that the effect would be that great," Carter said. "But it could be sufficient enough to engage kids in things they hadn't thought about otherwise."
Next year, DCPS hopes to raise $3 million to send 500 kids abroad. Meanwhile, around a quarter of its 10th-graders are proficient in English and 12 percent are proficient in geometry, according to recent standardized test scores.
Advocates of programs like Washington's agree that the benefits are intangible.
"How do you measure the value of an education, period?" Weeks said. "It's not you got into college or have a piece of paper which means you can get a job. It's how were you shaped as a person. I've just seen it happen over and over again that people change their ideas about what's possible for them."
The devil is in the details
Weeks said how a program operates is important.
Take the size of the group, for example. Weeks said if the groups are too big, students can hide and not take advantage of all the opportunities available to them. DCPS groups hosted about 20 students each.
Even more important is to get off the tourist train.
"For people who haven't traveled at all, it's fine to hit the markers," Weeks said. "Go to the Eiffel Tower, eat a croissant on the Champs-Elysees. And when possible, have a home stay, meet people who live there, get off the beaten path a little bit. That's absolutely essential."
Then after the trip, students should connect their experiences to their local community. The goal is for students to "see the global as not something that's out there that we must go and get but something we are innately connected to," Engel said. Such connections could take the form of academic projects or volunteering locally.
Researchers found in one study that how much students learned depended more on what they did afterward than what they actually did on the trip. Most students reported that the trips influenced their worldview, but only those who studied abroad again or found a job or internship related to their trip cited a lasting impact.
Two months later
Two months after his trip to Peru, Gales still wears an Andean cross around his neck. He was impressed by the different colors Peruvians wear and their delicious puréed food. He particularly bonded with Peru's animals, to the point his friends called him The Animal Whisperer by the end of the trip.
Gales said his grades have improved this year.
"Just seeing how the schooling situation is over there," he said, "it's hard for some people to have the funding to go to school. It's made me appreciate my education a little more."
Back from her trip to Spain, Brookings hopped into a conference room near the entrance to Dunbar, sporting a maroon Howard University sweatshirt and blue hair.
She had been shocked by the Catalan food, like eggs and fries mixed together. She loved The Sagrada Familia, a giant Roman Catholic Church designed by the Spanish architect Gaudi. But most impressive was a trip to a school for troubled youth, where the D.C. students spent three hours talking, laughing, drawing and dancing.
When she got back from Barcelona, she went straight back to the homeless shelter. She first thought, "Wow, I have to go back to this place," but she enjoyed sharing her experiences. Her family is now out of the homeless shelter after 7 months. She said the Barcelona trip inspired her to help other kids from the shelter see the world.
"I can help them and they can do the things that I thought I wasn't going to do," she said.
The next place Jeanee hopes to visit? Australia.