Students Bid Sayonara to the School Year

A group of two dozen students pose after their sayonora party as they prepare to head to Koju, Japan on June 2.

A group of two dozen students pose after their sayonara party as they prepare to head to Koju, Japan on June 2.

Checklist for the fast-approaching last day of school:

  • Clean out desk and locker
  • Say thanks and goodbye to teachers
  • Turn in textbooks
  • Be at airport by 6:00 AM – and don’t forget passport!

Thousands of DMPS students will call it a year on June 2 but 24 middle schoolers will leave that day for a two-week adventure in Kofu, Japan, Des Moines’ sister city. Students from the two towns have been taking turns hosting one another since 1983 and it’s Kofu’s turn to be the home team. Monday night the DMPS travelers gathered for the customary “Sayonara Party” at Central Campus. The young globetrotters were issued their 29-page itineraries that cover everything from time difference between here and there to how one locates the nearest toilet.

Speeches were practiced. There is a protocol to be followed that includes welcoming and farewell ceremonies and gift exchanges. And then it was time to dig in on an old-fashioned, All-American potluck spread. “Say ‘eat a duck and mouse’ real fast,” instructed veteran Kofu coordinator/chaperone Catie Miller, who teaches English at Central Academy. Apparently that approximates the phonics of the Japanese expression for “Chowtime!”

Takeoff for the next return in this long-running volley of home and home visits is only days away but preparations began last fall when students in 5th through 9th grade first applied to make the trip. They had to be recommended by two of their teachers and interviewed by their principals. Upon acceptance there have been twice-monthly group meetings since January to make proper ambassadors out of the bunch. Not to mention paying their ways. The trip costs $3,500 but earning money towards it is a valuable part of the experience. “We don’t sponsor any formal fundraising activities,” Miller said, “but families often collaborate to raise money. They sell coupons and candy bars; they clean stadiums after events. One student hosted two yard sales to help pay for her trip.”

Chaperones too must apply. Miller and Cowles principal Greg Grylls are the veteran Kofu coordinators who select their assistants. Both of them taught in Kofu earlier in their careers and well know the lay of the land there. This trip they’ll be joined by Cowles counselor Tracy Lepeltak, DMPS Elementary Director Barry Jones and Jeremy Jorgenson, who teaches music at Lovejoy Elementary.

The entourage will divide into blue, purple, green, red and orange groups. There will be homestays, two students to a household, and excursions to Mt. Fuji and Tokyo.

“The Kofu families are extremely proud to host the Des Moines students and take great care of them,” said Grylls. “The DMPS students spend the days as a group learning together but they spend their nights and weekend with the Kofu families.  Within the first couple of days, the DMPS students develop a great fondness for their family.”

The long flight back from Tokyo begins on June 13 at 11:10 AM. Touchdown in Chicago is scheduled for 9:06 AM the same day (“Before we left,” the itinerary notes). That’s when the 14 hours lost on the way over get reimbursed. But those who make the trip will never get their former selves back.

Photos from the Kofu Sayonara Party

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