When the vice mayor of the Chinese city of Loudi visited Eden Prairie High School on Wednesday, her journey began near what some would say is the social epicenter of any American high school: the cafeteria.

"Who pays for the food?" Vice Mayor Xintao Xiao asked Principal Conn McCartan through an interpreter. He explained that the students pay a fee of about $2 a meal to help offset the cost of state and federal meal programs. Xiao nodded.

The inquiry was the first of dozens of questions McCartan fielded from Xiao and a group of Chinese visitors about academics, per-pupil funding, extracurricular activities, staff salaries -- even the number of janitors working in the building.

Xiao directs education, science, technology, health and other social services in the rapidly growing municipality of Loudi in China's Hunan Province. Its estimated population is 4.1 million.

Her whirlwind tour of classrooms, teacher resource labs, cafeterias and gyms at Eden Prairie High on Wednesday was part of an exchange program between the two cities and their schools. Her entourage included about a half-dozen other Chinese officials and Eden Prairie school officials.

"It's very clean and tidy," Xiao said of Eden Prairie High, Minnesota's largest high school. "It's well-run. I'm very impressed with the dedication of the teachers and the students' discipline."

St. Paul businessman Lili Pan, a native of China who's lived here for more than 10 years, translated for the Chinese visitors and helped arrange their trip, which included a meeting with Eden Prairie city officials. "This goes back quite a few years," Pan said about Loudi's ties to Minnesota. McCartan described Pan as a "connector" between businesses and other organizations in Minnesota and China.

This past summer, Eden Prairie High School families hosted 18 teenage students from Loudi as part of an exchange program. Eden Prairie students will travel to Loudi next summer to continue the exchange.

"It expands your world view," McCartan said of the district's partnership. "At the same time, we see all of the things that we have in common."

The academic highlight of Xiao's visit was a brief stint in a math class taught by veteran teacher Sue Clark. The vice mayor and her entourage watched closely as Clark's calculus class solved a problem using one of the district's interactive white boards.

"You guys are a smart group here," Xiao said before she left the room.

Xiao also visited a child psychology class and spoke with a teacher whose students will run a day-care center for more than a dozen preschool students. The vice mayor said it's a very creative concept -- students teaching other students -- and that it was the most unexpected aspect of the visit.

Eden Prairie High School senior Reed Golden recorded the Chinese officials' visit for the school's in-house newscast. The 18-year-old said he's learned about China's economy in business classes and thinks it's great that the two cities have a relationship.

"It's kind of an honor that people from so far away are impressed with our technology," Reed said. "It would be cool to go there."

Patrice Relerford • 612-673-4395