Learning by going

(left to right) Ashley Sonntag, 16, Naiomi Torres, 15, Kelly Wooding, 16, Sydney Dombrowski, 17, Joy Parker, 16, Megan Paraschak, 16, Kiani Lozada, 17, Kaitlin Dyson, 16, and Dylan Brown, 17 are Art Acadamy students at Benjamin Rus, who are raising money to visit Poland in March, Thursday, January 17, 2013, Philadelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouchnikova)

Megan Paraschak and her family enjoyed hosting a Polish exchange student who came to America for 10 days last March.

Paraschak, now a senior at The Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush, became close to her exchange student, Zuzanna Zawadzka, and the Paraschak family hosted a party at their Bustleton home for the rest of the Polish contingent.

The farewells were emotional.

“It was an awesome experience,” Paraschak recalled. “They became part of the family. We were like friends who knew each other our whole lives.”

Paraschak received some good news in October, when the administration at Rush — located at 11081 Knights Road — announced that some students would be given the opportunity to travel to Torun, Poland, and live with host families.

Paraschak and three fellow hosts — Joy Parker, Dylan Brown and Frank Fortino — immediately signed up for the 10-day trip, which begins March 19.

“I was very excited when I found out we were going to Poland,” Parker said.

“I was so ready to go,” Brown said. “To have them come over was the highlight of my sophomore year.”

Six other students were chosen after a process that included a written application, an interview and teacher recommendations.

“I wanted to jump right into the opportunity,” said Kelly Wooding, who was selected.

“I want to know what the world is like,” said another winner, Naiomi Torres, who knows only the streets of Philadelphia and the small town where she was born in Puerto Rico.

Teachers Dana Rapoport and Susan Ebner will lead the 15-person Rush entourage, which will also include their husbands and Rapoport’s baby.

The students who will make the trip are seniors Fortino and Kiani Lozada, juniors Parker, Paraschak, Brown, Kaitlin Dyson, Sydney Dombrowski and Wooding and sophomores Ashley Sonntag and Torres.

The Rush crew will fly from Philadelphia to London’s Heathrow Airport for a layover before arriving at its final destination in Warsaw.

“Europe is amazing. We’re all going to have an incredible time,” Dyson said.

The teenagers have been busy raising money for the trip. The cost is estimated to be about $1,500 per person, which includes airfare, transportation and hotel stays in Krakow and Warsaw.

There’s a big water jug in the main office. The kids encourage visitors to contribute “Pocket change for the Polish Exchange.” A sticker on the jug says, “Dziekuje,” which is, “Thank you,” in Polish.

Online, visitors can make a donation of any amount. For $10, they’ll receive a personalized postcard. Fifty dollars gets you a photograph of the trip, and $100 brings a poster capturing the memories. For $500, a student will call donors to tell them all about the trip. And for $1,000, the students will present a slide show and engage in a question-and-answer session.

The online goal is an ambitious $10,000.

Money is also being raised by selling calendars, candy, flowers and pizza and cookie dough. The kids wrapped Christmas gifts at Barnes & Noble and gave a performance at Glen Foerd on the Delaware to earn some cash. And they’ll be having a fund-raiser at the Santucci’s pizza parlor at Knights and Woodhaven roads on Feb. 26.

The students acknowledge nervousness about being on their own and meeting new people, but they are excited about the chance.

They’ll be traveling more than 4,200 miles to Torun, the birthplace of Nicolaus Copernicus, the famed 16th-century astronomer and mathematician.

There will be side trips to a historic salt mine, the former concentration camp in Auschwitz and the Baltic Sea.

The Rush students — who major in vocal, instrumental, theater and visual arts — will offer a performance. Rapoport and Ebner, the chaperones, will teach lessons.

“For them, it’s working on their English,” Rapoport said of the Poles. “For us, it’s much more of a cultural exchange.”

The 10 students believe they have the right mix of strong academics, social skills and Rush ideals to make a good impression on the Polish people. They are looking forward to experiencing what Poland has to offer in terms of art, architecture and music.

“We all love the arts,” Kelly said.

After the plane lands in Warsaw, a bus will pick up the Americans and participants in a Hungarian exchange program for the trip to High School №9.

“It will be a multi-country exchange, which will be nice,” Rapoport said.

Like Rush, the Polish high school focuses on the arts. Folks there learned of a neighboring Polish school’s exchange program with Philadelphia’s Abraham Lincoln and Swenson Arts and Technology high schools. Officials at High School №9 then contacted Swenson, which recommended that they call Rush.

When the four Polish students came to the U.S. a year ago, they met Mayor Michael Nutter; visited museums and the historical sites in Philadelphia; and traveled to Washington, D.C., New York and Atlantic City.

Brown and his family hosted Karol Lisinski. The two had a common interest — playing the piano. Lisinski’s classmates also jelled with the Rush kids.

“Everybody had a lot in common, even though we’re different culturally and where we come from,” Brown said.

Now, it’s time for the American teens to see how they fit in on foreign turf. They can’t wait to find out.

“It won’t settle in until we’re at Philadelphia International Airport,” Lozada said. “We’ll be wired.” ••

To view videos, make a donation or for more information, visit www.indiegogo.com/RushArtsPoland or call the school at 215–281–2603.

Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215–354–3034 or twaring@bsmphilly.com