Fourteen students from Thailand began a weeklong visit to Madison Middle School on Monday, experiencing the United States beyond what any textbook could show them.
Paired with Thai American students enrolled at the Van Nuys school, the visitors toured classrooms, ate food from the campus snack bar and even listened to the school band's rendition of "Louie, Louie."
It wasn't the sort of instruction the youths from Chulalongkorn University normally receive. And that's exactly how organizers wanted it.
The trip was designed to expose the gifted Thai students, who range from 10 to 14 years old, to their American peers, said David Puathasnanon, project coordinator. He explained that the visitors are part of a magnet program at their school, which goes by the name of university but is designed for younger students.
Puathasnanon described U.S. youths as more independent and, noting the lack of school uniforms, more informal.
Puathasnanon said his school's faculty hopes that when the students return to Thailand, "they will be good leaders."
The trip is sponsored by Wat Thai temple of Los Angeles. Participants are scheduled to visit Madison Middle School through May 16, then spend another week visiting popular sites in California and Nevada.
To qualify for the program, the Thai students had to be recommended by their homeroom teachers and pass a stringent selection process that reviewed their grades, Puathasnanon said.
On Monday, the visiting students were easily recognizable--both by the matching white-and-blue jackets they wore and by their demeanor. They quietly watched several presentations, from a slide show about the campus to band performances, while Madison's own whispered and giggled among themselves.
"They're shy," said 12-year-old Andrew Mahatakulrungsi, a Madison student who accompanied the Thai students.
Madison school officials believe the visit is educational for everyone involved.
"I think it's a very positive interchange," said Principal JoAnna Kunes. "One of our main chores here is to help students get along with groups, to appreciate their different behavior and different culture."
About 25 Madison students, either of Thai heritage or active in the school's leadership program, are accompanying the students during their visit.
It's a chance for Madison students "to try something, get some confidence, a chance to see their own Americanization," said Kunes. "I hope it makes them more worldly and proud of their heritage."
Organizers hope to make the visit an annual event, and several Madison students said they would like to see the program repeated.
"It's very good," said Joanne Adalid, 14. "It gives them a taste of what we deal with every day."
Thai students are scheduled to visit Disneyland and the Los Angeles Coliseum, San Francisco and Yosemite.
They won't forget Madison, however. Each student received a goody bag packed with a school T-shirt, fanny pack, folder and assorted junk food.