Seventeen students at National Collegiate Preparatory Public Charter High School in Southeast Washington D.C. traveled and studied in Panama as a part of their curriculum, recently.

National Collegiate Prep students get the opportunity to explore and learn about the Black community in Panama. (Courtesy Photo-National Prep)

Shannon Cox, who teaches Spanish, helped arrange the May 1-5 trip. She said the journey had a two-fold purpose. “We wanted the students to practice their Spanish in a real-live setting and we wanted them to see the other parts of the African Diaspora,” Cox told the AFRO. “I wanted our students to see how large the Black community [is] in the world and [that] during slavery, Black people went everywhere, not just the Deep South.”

Panama is in Central America and 15 percent of its population is Afro-Panamanian, with an estimate that 50 percent of the country’s people have some Black blood. Afro-Panamanians are mainly the descendants of slaves and Blacks from nearby countries, and tend to live in Panama City, the largest city in the country, in addition to towns and villages along the Atlantic Ocean.

Afro-Panamanian were the main workers on the Panama Canal, the artificial waterway that opened in 1914 that cuts through the Isthmus of Panama for 48 miles, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

In order to attend the trip, students must raise $1300 and be in good academic standing.

National Collegiate is a non-profit International Baccalaureate (IB) institution located on Livingston Avenue. It was founded by Jennifer Ross, who served as its executive director in 2008.

Dr. Dianne G. Brown, chief academic officer of the school, notes in the school’s Sankofa Speaks newsletter that traveling abroad has long been part of the curriculum.

Ross said, in a statement to the AFRO, that “our emphasis at National Collegiate Prep has been on global awareness and International Studies. It is important to us that our students have the opportunity to explore and experience another place which allows them to broaden their horizons and encourage growth. During this trip, students have volunteered in community clean-up programs, read to seniors at nursing homes and distributed clothes to HIV-positive mothers.

” Students visit an indigenous island to learn about the first settlers of Panama; they spend a day at our partner International Baccalaureate School, and practice speaking at a traditional formal Panamanian restaurant.”

The program is in its fifth year. Ross said students are changed forever and it motivates them to learn about other cultures and countries.

Jada Brown went on the trip and told the AFRO that she enjoyed the experience. “This is the first time I have been out of the country,” she said. “My family and I travel in the United States but I wanted a different experience.”

Brown said that after interacting with young people her age and younger, she realized that “Afro-Panamanians are just like us.”

“They look like us,” she said.

Cox said the students visited Afro-Panamanian towns such as Portobelo in the Colon Province and Curunda, which is a ward that is majority Afro-Panamanian in Panama City. She said that the students at one point worked with their Panamanian counterparts to clean up basketball, soccer, and tennis courts. “We wanted to teach both the American and Panamanian students to have pride in their culture,” Cox said. “One way to have pride is cleaning your surroundings.”

Keimare McClary, a student who went on the trip, told the AFRO that he likes to travel and recognizes that doing so offers unique opportunities. McClary recalls an incident where he was sitting alone at the IB school in Panama and a Panamanian came up to him and started talking.

“We talked about education and things like that,” McClary said. “I found out that we have a lot in common. I found the people of Panama to be nice and there was a lot of energy around them.”