As an independent school in the New York metropolitan area, Eastern Christian has experienced significant growth in its Chinese student population. While we have had Korean students for over ten years, our first Chinese student came in 2011; we are finishing the current school year with over thirty. Our experience reflects a national trend.
An increasing number of Chinese students attend school in the United States, and the trend is moving toward doing this at a younger age. What began as interest in graduate school has moved to college, high school and even middle school education. The number of nonimmigrant students studying in secondary schools in 2014 is 50,526, and almost one-third of these students are from China.1 Nonimmigrant students, who require F1 visas, usually attend independent schools which have been approved by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). As a result, faith-based schools, both Catholic and Protestant, are experiencing significant interest from Chinese applicants.
Schools, many of which are experiencing shrinking enrollment, are drawn to this opportunity for a variety of reasons. Tuition from these students, which in many cases exceeds, often by a significant amount, the tuition from local students, allows some schools to maintain their current programs. For other schools, the increase in tuition provides the opportunity for revenue that can fund additional opportunities for growth.2 In addition, evangelical Christian schools, even those who limit local candidates to those from believing families, are compelled by the opportunity that Chinese students represent as they consider their mandate to share their faith, particularly with students who have grown up in a society that is not religious. Most independent schools would cite the cross-cultural opportunity represented by international students as an additional advantage for enrolling them.
Given the interest from Chinese students, as well as the compelling reasons for independent schools to consider them as attractive candidates, a situation has developed in which faith-based schools are working very quickly to accommodate the number of students who are interested in enrolling in their schools. Caring for the unique needs of these students must be a priority or both the students and the schools will be unsuccessful in this venture. Students will be defeated by the challenge and will transfer to another school in the hope that it will provide them with a better platform for success. Schools will be discouraged by the amount of time and energy that is required from administrators and teachers in meeting the needs of English language learners who transfer in and out at a high rate from year to year. If high schools are going to open their doors to Chinese students, they need to commit the necessary resources to caring for them. We have learned some valuable lessons that we can share as other schools consider this opportunity.
Are They Prepared?
Students who are most likely to be successful in an American high school will come equipped with certain skills before they arrive. They need to have the intellectual capacity to learn another language and be intrinsically motivated learners who can tackle hours and hours of learning new content in a second language. They need to be emotionally resilient to handle the stresses of adjusting to a new culture, language and living situation as well as socially competent in order to make the social adjustments necessary to form relationships. Schools that are committed to helping students be successful will need to carefully screen applicants prior to their arrival in order to ensure that they have these basic skills.
Chinese applicants are unfamiliar with the American protocol requiring multiple letters of recommendation and essays. Because of this challenge, they usually hire educational consultants who will assist them in the completion of applications which then reflect the expertise of the consultants rather than the aptitude of the applicants. For this reason, the applications themselves are unreliable as screening tools. While not foolproof, secure standardized tests and face-to-face interviews provide the most accurate picture of a student. Interview services, such as Vericant, have emerged to assist schools with this process. Any school that has found itself with a non-English speaker having an undiagnosed or undisclosed learning, social or emotional issue will soon discover the value of a careful screening process as they attempt to sort out options for a struggling Chinese student who is part way through an academic year.
Where Will They Live?
One of the most pressing questions for schools who accept international students is the question of housing. There are variations on two main models. Boarding schools are prepared with dormitories and cafeterias. While dormitories provide a stable, structured environment, Chinese students often end up living and studying with other Chinese students; the opportunities to interact with Americans and American culture are limited.
Day schools often establish host family or home-stay programs. In this model, families in the school community provide room and board for students. In order to be successful, host family programs require recruiting, screening, training, supporting and management. Host families will need training on common cultural pitfalls, tips on food preparation for a student with different preferences and guidelines on expectations that help a student be successful. When done well, students can receive exceptional care and also have a rich cultural experience. In addition, language exposure, in a true immersion environment, will accelerate English acquisition.
In our experience at Eastern Christian, the host family model has been a tremendous asset to both the students and the host families. The school community has embraced the opportunity and our students have, with few exceptions, made a good transition to a host family environment. The key has been a dedicated Host Family Coordinator who is available to make placements, conduct interviews, provide support, answer questions, train families and visit homes.
How Will They Learn?
Even strong students, with good learning capability, will come with varying levels of English proficiency. Students, although testing well, may be unintelligible in their social interactions. Conversely, students, who appear fluent in their everyday interactions, may struggle with academic vocabulary and writing.
As schools consider which applicants they will accept, they need to carefully consider their academic program. If they do not offer significant support in their language program and language-based classes, they need to expect a high level of English proficiency in their incoming students. If they do offer support through tiered-ESL instruction to meet the needs of English learners at a variety of stages, they can have more flexibility in the level of English proficiency they accept.
In Christian schools, an annual Bible class is usually a requirement. Chinese students often have little or no background that prepares them for this, particularly in comparison to some of their classmates who have been in Christian school since preschool. Some schools offer a course that provides an overview of the Bible and Christianity. When Chinese parents question this as an academic requirement, I usually remind them that this is an important course, not just because it is the basis of our faith, but because biblical literacy is essential in understanding Western thought.
On the other hand, it is a rare high school math teacher who expresses concern about having Chinese students in the class. For schools that want to keep their students growing as mathematicians, the issue becomes offering math classes that provide adequate challenge. The presence of Chinese students in our math classes has driven us to offer more advanced math electives, and all of our students have benefited from this development.
Chinese students can struggle as they attempt to understand some of the significant differences in an American approach to education. American teachers have different expectations. Students are expected to participate in class, engage in debate and discussion, work collaboratively, think critically and work creatively. We have learned to include these expectations as part of our orientation for students so that they understand the implicit expectations of American classrooms.
Not only do students need to be prepared for the American classroom, teachers and other adults who work with Chinese students need to receive training. We have made it a priority to do continuing professional development for teachers. Topics have included understanding Chinese educational culture, teaching academic vocabulary and strategies for teaching English language learners. Teachers need to feel equipped to meet the unique needs of the Chinese students in their classrooms.
How Do We Engage in Community?
Like most Christian school communities, ours is made up of a dense and rich tapestry of relationships. Students, parents, faculty and staff are connected through ties that have been created through friends, family and church. If Chinese students can be included in these relationships, they will be nourished socially, emotionally and spiritually. Intentionally building relationships in these areas has been a priority for us and a key factor in helping students remain healthy, even when far away from home.
Chinese students studying in American high schools express concern about the difficulty they experience in forming relationships with American friends. Language and cultural barriers are significant. Cafeteria tables with Chinese students eating together are the norm rather than the exception. Thus, schools need to be intentional about the work of building and sustaining cross-cultural relationships. This is particularly challenging since teenagers are teenagers, and learning how to navigate social relationships is part of high school. The most poignant feedback I hear from Chinese students is their desire to make American friends and their frustration in overcoming the language barrier. We have made some progress in this area by approaching it from two perspectives.
First, we do a unit focused on cross-cultural competency as part of a seminar course for all incoming freshmen. Upper-class international students, many of whom have grown into leadership roles in the school, share their experiences with the class as part of a panel discussion. We then put the American students in the position of being cultural learners. We ask them to research Asian recipes, then, take them to an Asian market. They have to navigate recipes, food labels, unfamiliar ingredients and new dishes. The Asian students become valuable resources in helping their American classmates.
Second, our International Student Life Program includes an American ambassador component. Monthly activities and trips over breaks include both American and international students. These activities have been popular with all students and have helped both groups begin to forge relationships.
Chinese parents can be a mystery to those working with Chinese high school students. Language and time zone challenges make communication very difficult. Christian schools, that have historically served families in close partnerships, can neglect this relationship due to the communication challenges. As our program has matured, we have become more intentional about cultivating these partnerships. We translate key communications that we send via email. Our online grade-book and web site can be translated, albeit imperfectly, into many languages with a click of the button.
Sending school representatives to meet with all new Chinese parents has been the most significant way to form a relationship with families. Parent meetings have been key in helping parents understand the school’s mission, their student’s progress and the American schooling process. They put a face to the school and create a relationship. The meetings have allowed us to iron out minor misunderstandings before they escalate and address any concerns in the context of the relationship. They also help us begin to manage parents’ expectations. While it is possible that their child will gain acceptance to an Ivy League school, it is probable that they will not. Helping parents understand that there are multiple pathways to success in American higher education can take some of the pressure off both parents and students.
How Do We Nurture Their Spirits?
Most Chinese students studying in the United States have limited or no religious background. They are also incredibly receptive to learning more about Christianity. Host families, dorm parents, mentors, classmates, Christian schools and churches all play a significant role in helping them learn more about faith.
Some schools have been able to identify local Christian Chinese partners. In our case, there is an active Chinese church with a Friday night youth group that attracts many of our Chinese students. They eat Chinese food and fellowship with believers. The gospel message that American believers in their community are attempting to communicate with their lives is also communicated clearly, in Chinese, through scripture and teaching.
One of my most memorable experiences with a Chinese student happened after a long Saturday of ice-skating and Christmas shopping in Manhattan. On the bumpy, noisy, school bus ride home, she talked about years of violin lessons and practice in China without any opportunity to perform until her first high school concert in the United States, the significance of her American education, her conversion experience and her desire to share her faith with her family in China.
I also remember a parent meeting that took place in Taipei when a mother, who has three children in our school, shared the story of her daughter’s return after her first year as an eighth grader. Her daughter became a believer and shared her story with her mother who then converted and has become an active member of her church. The mother is motivated to keep up her own spiritual growth so that when her daughter returns home they can share what they have each learned in their time apart.
Can We Embrace the Opportunity?
If schools are going to accept Chinese students, meeting their physical, educational, social, emotional and spiritual needs must be the highest priority. Integrity requires that schools commit resources to developing a holistic educational program that will serve these students well. Motivated by a desire to care for international students, as our program has matured both our school and our students, local and international, have reaped significant benefits. As we have grown in number of students and quality, our international retention rate has gone from about seventy percent to a three year average of ninety-seven percent. Students are happy, and they choose to stay in our school community. Our recruiting efforts have focused on the word-of-mouth opportunities that satisfied parents provide. We now enjoy informal parent groups in first and second-tier Chinese cities. Our applications exceed the number of spots we have available.
The Bible is full of situations in which key historical moments take place at the intersection of language and culture. Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Ruth, Esther, Paul at Mars Hill and Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch all point to the potential for the Kingdom when cultures come together. American high schools are facing a significant opportunity as they welcome Chinese students into their school communities.
1Student and Exchange Visitor Program, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, April 2014, http://www.ice.gov/doclib/sevis/pdf/by-the-numbers1.pdf
2The New York Times, “Catholic Schools in U.S. Court China’s Youth, and Their Cash,” Kyle Spencer, April 6, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/07/nyregion/catholic-schools-court-chinese-and-their-cash.html?ref=todayspaper
Image Credit: Cathy Lagerveld