Over the last eight years, students from Heritage Hall High School in Oklahoma City have participated in an exchange program with students from Chongqing, a city in southwest China. Heritage Hall has a Confucius Classroom program dedicated to Chinese language and culture instruction and has held immersion trips to China each year since the program’s founding in 2006.
Confucius Classrooms are similar to their upper level education counterparts, Confucius Institutes. Founded and sponsored by the Chinese government, Confucius Classrooms for grades K-12 provide Mandarin Chinese language instruction and cultural classes. Ms. Jessie Maeer, the program’s head teacher at Heritage Hall, told Asia Matters for America that her school was among the first 25 US schools selected to have a Confucius Classroom and that is was a “great honor.”
In May 2014, Heritage Hall hosted 15 students from the Chongqing 29th Secondary School. During the immersion program, students and instructors learned about one another’s cultures and education systems. Chinese students noted the smaller class sizes and more relaxed lifestyle in Oklahoma as compared to their high school in China, where students must devote most of their time studying for the national college entrance exam, known as gao kao.
The exchange visits reflect a growing interest among wealthy Chinese in US private schools. Increasingly, Chinese families are sending children to America for a private high school education. According to data from the Department of Homeland Security, only 65 Chinese students studied at American private high schools in the 2005-06 academic year, but by 2011 the number increased to 6,725 students. Among the 248 private schools who are members of The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS), 27% of students were from China in the 2010-2011 academic year, an increase from less than 3% in the 2002-2003 school year.
As of 2013, 23,562 Chinese students were enrolled in US high schools, and China ranked as the number one place of origin for international secondary school students. Of the total number of international students on F-1 visas studying at high schools in America, 95% are enrolled in private schools.
Chinese families view private US high schools as an avenue for their children to enter Ivy Leagues and a path toward career success. Heritage Hall, however, has not experienced the growth in numbers of Chinese students that other schools have because it is not a boarding school. Ms. Maeer noted the difficulty of placing young students with long term host-families and said that is hard for students to be apart from families for so long.
The challenges that high school-aged students can face while studying away from home, such as loneliness, language barriers, and culture shock, are not easy for foreign students coming to the US for the first time. To many Chinese families, however, the difficulty is surpassed by the rewards of an American education.
Melissa Newcomb recently graduated from American University SIS and is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington, D.C.