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Foreign students help boost enrollment at North Arlington's Queen of Peace High School
March 29, 2014, 11:24 PM Last updated: Sunday, March 30, 2014, 9:22 AM
The Record
mitsu yasukawa/staff photographer Students Elvis Jia, left, James Zhang and Dylan Gu talking with Margaret Farrell, director of services for English-language learners at Queen of Peace High School in North Arlington, where 10 percent of students are from abroad.

Related: Foreign enrollment reaches a record – and is still growing

At Queen of Peace High School in North Arlington, 40 students — nearly 10 percent of the enrollment — are from abroad, coming from as far away as China and South Korea to live with host families and attend this small Catholic school in southern Bergen County.

The number is up more than threefold since 2010 even as domestic enrollment has dipped, forcing consolidations and closures at Catholic schools around the country. In all, there are 175 international students studying at four high schools in the Archdiocese of Newark, said spokesman James Goodness.

Private schools struggling with declining enrollment — from secondary through graduate school — increasingly are turning to international students to diversify and maintain their student body and bolster the bottom line.

Drew University announced earlier this month that it had entered into a partnership with a private firm to recruit students from abroad to its wooded campus in Madison, where enrollment has dropped to just over 2,000. The school projects that 20 percent of its student body will be international within five to seven years.

Drew joins a long-established trend in higher education, where recruiting from abroad is common but has accelerated in the past few years as emerging economies in Asia and the Middle East have produced families with the means and the desire to send their children to U.S. schools. And now the wave has reached into the secondary schools, where families hope that attending high school stateside will give their children a leg up in getting into American colleges.

James Zhang, an 18-year-old senior from Beijing in his second year at Queen of Peace, said his parents were spending three-quarters of their annual pay as office workers and had to dip into savings to pay the costs of studying abroad, including $8,900 tuition, fees for transportation, boarding with a host family and a recruiting agency.

Zhang said he believes it’s a worthy investment. “Generally, learning in China is all academics,” Zhang said, in strong English. “Here you learn about coping skills and social skills. You build your own personality and your own personal identity. People in middle age don’t ask how you did in school; they judge you by your social skills, so that weighs more.”

Foreign students have been enrolling in American high schools at a fast clip in recent years. The number of secondary students in the United States on visas for stays of more than a year climbed to 65,000 in 2012, a tenfold increase from 2007, according to the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel, a non-profit in Virginia. By far the top-sending countries are China and South Korea, and the vast majority of students attend private schools.

“Our schools have been inundated with requests from agents in China,” said Paul Miller, director of global initiatives for the National Association of Independent Schools. Boarding schools have long hosted international students, but day schools have gotten into the act in the past three or four years, Miller said.

Most schools deal with recruiting firms or agents abroad — a relationship that can be fraught with peril, experts say. Recruiters can be ill-equipped to evaluate the readiness of students to attend an American school and can take financial advantage of families, charging them huge fees to place their children in the United States, they say.

“Definitely the agency thing has been tricky; there are a host of issues,” Miller said. “Initially some of the schools thought that this was going to be a great way to help the bottom line and make the schools more diverse,” Miller said. “But they found you have to be careful.”

Schools need to consider whether overseas recruits need English-language instruction or remedial classes or any other help adapting to a new culture.

Several students said they learned about Queen of Peace from recruiters at fairs in China. The school has an agreement with UCEducations, which finds host families, arranges visas and checks in on the students while they are in America. A Google search found that agency hunting for host families in Pittsburgh on Craigslist, and promising them $750 per month.

Raquel Almeida-Khodash, a UCEducations representative who said she works with Queen of Peace and four other New Jersey schools, said she recruited mostly through word of mouth, and New Jersey host families received $1,000 per month in compensation.

“I don’t feel very comfortable with putting an ad on Craigslist because you’re going to reach all kinds of audiences that’s not very desirable,” she said. “You need to be very careful to put kids in safe environments.”

The head of UCEducations, Peter Xie, did not respond to calls and an email seeking comment.

As Zhang and five other students from China sat in the school library on a recent morning, they spoke about burnishing their English so they can do well on the SATs, and enjoying more free time here to explore hobbies, from bowling and yo-yos to the student television news show. All said their schools back home were far more demanding, with classes often scheduled from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., or even later.

Wearing the school uniform of khaki pants and dark blue tops, the Chinese students said they hoped to stay in America for several years of high school and then college before moving back home. They picked American first names for the sake of convenience.

Several said easier schoolwork here has liberated them to pursue intellectual interests and enjoy making friends without stress. Vivian Situ, a junior, said her boarding school in China often held classes until 11 p.m. and some students burned out.

“They gave up,” she said. “They stopped trying.”

Elvis Jia, a junior who said he hadn’t heard of the King of Rock-and-Roll before picking the name, was glad to learn more about American culture and have classes with more student discussion, rather than just lectures. At home, however, he did higher-level math, physics and chemistry.

“Here you learn widely,” he said. “In China you learn deeply.”

Leaders at the school say the American students benefit from exposure to peers abroad, and the teachers are charmed by the foreign students’ earnest commitment and thoughtful manners.

Margaret Farrell, director of services for English-language learners, told of a time that a student repeated the same mistake so frequently that she said in jest that he was giving her a headache. The next day the boy brought her a decorative box full of special tea to relieve the pain.

Farrell said it was valuable for students from New Jersey and abroad to learn that teenagers had similar concerns no matter where they lived. In her words, “They care about clothing, being popular, does the boy or girl across the room like me, and does my hair look good?”

Principal John Bellochio said the school did not proselytize to the foreign students, who said they were not Catholic. However, Bellochio said, “We are hopeful and prayerful” that the students see the value of the Catholic faith in action.

The decision to study here has paid off for some; school officials said their seniors from China had already been offered admission to a range of colleges, including the University of Miami, Boston College and Boston University.

Email: alex@northjersey.com

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