August 17, 2014 at 1:00 am

Chinese seek freedom, edge at U.S. high schools

Lisa Li, a high school student at the U.S. prep school Lawrence Academy in Groton, Mass., sits outside the Stephen Robert Campus Center on the Brown University Campus in Providence, RI. on July 10. High schoolers want to escape the rat race in China, where students often study late into the night with little opportunity for extracurricular activities. (Stephan Savoia / AP)

Beijing— After getting a glimpse of the endless cramming for China’s grueling college entrance exams from the seniors in his high school, 16-year-old Zhang Kaisheng decided to take a different path.

Like a growing number of Chinese teenagers, Zhang plans to enroll this fall in a private U.S. high school where he and his parents hope he will get a more well-rounded — if far more expensive — education. Tuition, room and board can cost around $40,000 — three to four times more than an elite private school in China.

“I feel like the U.S. education fits me better and will allow me to do things I like to do,” said Zhang, who loves playing basketball.

With more than 333,000 of its students in U.S. colleges and graduate schools, China has long been the top feeder of international students in America. Now Chinese high school students are following suit in astonishing fashion: Last year U.S. schools welcomed 50 times more of them than they did just eight years earlier.

The high schoolers want to escape the rat race at home, where students often study late into the night with little opportunity for extracurricular activities. They also believe studying in the U.S. will help them snag coveted spots at more prestigious American colleges.

“The competition has grown fiercer, and there has been pressure to go to U.S. high schools to gain an edge,” said Xu Yi, who runs a tutoring and consulting agency for Chinese students called Focus Education.

Though international surveys have shown that Chinese students perform well ahead of their American peers in subjects such as math and reading, top-level U.S. schools remain highly regarded among educated Chinese for developing critical thinking and communication skills.

“China boasts solid elementary and secondary education, especially in math, but it lacks innovation,” said Wang Huiyao, president of Beijing-based Center for China and Globalization. “Chinese students may be able to memorize formulas but they lack ‘soft skills’ such as people skills and the ability to communicate with global language and culture.”

Young Chinese with U.S. college degrees usually can expect broader career prospects, as China has become increasingly globally minded, with more opportunities for foreign-educated youth.

Last fall, the U.S. issued 31,889 F-1 student visas to Chinese youth planning to attend American high schools, up from just 639 in 2005. China also has overtaken South Korea as the No. 1 origin country of students to U.S. high schools, with its elite families leading the way as their children are vying for spots in prestigious U.S. preparatory schools.

China’s rising financial might is fueling the rise.

“Chinese families did not have the choices in the past, and they did not have the financial means, but with the rise of the middle class, Chinese families now can scour worldwide for schools,” Wang said.

Chinese parents see the hefty cost of private U.S. high schools as a worthy investment. “If he can develop a multitude of skills and be a well-rounded person, it would be money well spent,” said Zhang Kaisheng’s mother, Wang Lihong, the president of a state bank branch in Beijing.

For many students, the chance to study in the U.S. opens up new opportunities. Riley Peng, the daughter of a successful entrepreneur, disliked the emphasis on rote memorization in China, and now is engaged in a variety of classes and extracurricular activities at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Connecticut, including running on the cross-country team.

“There are many things I now get to experiment with,” she said.

Peng’s friend Lisa Li, who attends Lawrence Academy in Groton, Massachusetts, said she felt like a failure if she didn’t get the top test score in her class in Beijing. Her academic work in the U.S. is also rigorous, but she says she doesn’t feel the same kind of pressure, and is now encouraged to explore other interests — like music composition.

“It is so worth it, although it is highly challenging,” Li said. “U.S. prep schools are demanding intellectually, but they also emphasize creativity. It has helped me find my direction — turning the impossible into possibilities.”

Her mother, Jin Min, is pleased. “Now she has creativity, instead of being a copying machine of knowledge, or an encyclopedia,” she said.

It helps that teens from affluent Chinese families are often well versed in English and American culture. Chinese students usually are required to demonstrate English proficiency before attending American high schools, although some U.S. schools offer remedial courses.

In any case, it’s a big adjustment to study far from home. Experts warn parents to think twice before sending their children abroad and urge them to find proper guardianship or choose reputable boarding schools.

Keith Hernandez, vice president of the consulting company Duewest Education, also cautions that an American high school education might not help Chinese students get into the top U.S. universities. Sometimes, too much U.S. experience could hurt an applicant’s chances if admissions officers are seeking more diverse backgrounds, he said.

“They are better prepared, but it’s not going to be easier,” Hernandez said.

Still, the rising demand is creating new opportunities for American schools and enterprising educators.

In Pennsylvania, Chinese investor Jiang Bairong has bought the grounds of an old school and opened the new Princeton International School of Mathematics and Science — miles away from Princeton University — in a partnership with the High School Affiliated to Renmin University of China, an elite school in Beijing.

Principal Max McGee said he had about 30 students last fall and that the goal is to have 250 students in five years. Half would be international students — mostly from China.

“The students are immersed in English, and they learn how to write better,” McGee said. “Even after one year, they have become accomplished writers, and they can present with eloquence, power and self-confidence.”

American public schools also are jostling for a slice of the cake.

In Michigan, the public Lake Shore High School in the Detroit suburb of St. Clair Shores gets about 90 Chinese students each year, all from the Beijing Haidian International School. The students pay tuition and living expenses to spend 11th grade at Lake Shore High along with American students. A once-abandoned elementary school has been converted for use as a dormitory.

Unlike private schools, U.S. public school districts cannot enroll foreign students for more than one year because of federal restrictions, though a bipartisan bill in Congress seeks change that.

Sponsored by two New York congressmen, Democrat Bill Owens and Republican Chris Gibson, the bill proposes to remove the one-year restriction on foreign students attending U.S. K-12 public schools as long as they pay the full, unsubsidized per-person cost of attending the school district.

In a written statement, Owens said the change would help public schools improve their bottom line at the time of flagging enrollment.

Lake Shore Schools Superintendent Christopher Loria said his district’s program benefits both American teenagers, who “get a better view of the world,” and Chinese students, who get a taste of American culture.

“They absolutely love it here. Many will comment that they’d rather stay here sometimes,” Loria said. “Obviously they don’t, but most of them will come back and go to a college in the U.S.”

To ensure that the Chinese students will be able to pass high school graduation exams back home, the Haidian school sends its own teachers to Lake Shore High to provide tutoring classes on math, physics and chemistry. It also provides English tutoring, said Wang Yingkun, a Haidian principal.

Marcus Barnett, a Lake Shore graduate now studying engineering at University of Detroit-Mercy, said Chinese students helped raise the academic bar at his old school.

“They go above and beyond when it comes to studying,” he said. “I came to the realization I needed to do the same thing.”

Barnett began taking Mandarin Chinese in seventh grade, traveled to China three times and has gained several Chinese “brothers” — students his family has hosted. The experience has helped him understand the importance of being competitive in school and in life.

“They’re coming here to go to (college) here. Could that have been my spot if I tried harder?” he said. “On a higher level, what happens after you graduate college? Those same people might want the same thing you want.”

Zhang Kaisheng, 16, smiles near Chinese and U.S. national flags at the ... (Ng Han Guan / AP)