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Much to consider as Janesville schools go global

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Frank Schultz
October 26, 2013

It's not all about China, and it shouldn't be all about the money.

Those are two ideas that stood out in recent interviews with the administrators of three high school programs that host foreign students.

The Gazette interviewed administrators in Ladysmith, a small school district in north-central Wisconsin; the Wisconsin International Academy, which serves five private schools in the Milwaukee area, and the public school district in Oxford, Mich.

All three programs rely at least in part on tuition-paying students from China and other countries. All three prepare both local and foreign students for the challenges of an increasingly global economy.

The programs have their differences, but all offer ideas that could become part of a  Janesville program.

Janesville Superintendent Karen Schulte began laying the groundwork for a program last fall when she flew to China to establish relationships with schools in that country.

Subsequent trips to China by Schulte and other district officials prompted questions by some in the community. Are these trips necessary? What is the goal? What will this mean for Janesville?

Schulte has answered questions, but because the program is still under development, final answers to all questions aren't possible. This article looks at the potential by understanding how similar programs operate.

Ladysmith

Let's start in Ladysmith, home of the Lumberjacks and Lumberjills. It is a city of about 3,300 people, and its high school enrollment is about 300.

Ladysmith uses a dormitory on the campus of the defunct Mount Senario College, where 43 foreign students live today. Students also have host families that invite them for meals or family outings at least once a month.

The dorm has separate wings for girls and boys and a game room in the basement that became a popular hangout for local high school kids, said Luke Klink, assistant editor at the Ladysmith News, who has reported on the program.

Federal rules allow private schools to host foreign students for unlimited years, Ladysmith Administrator Kurt Lindau said, but public schools are restricted.

“We don't know why, but we would like to see the government level the playing field,” said Bob King, a retired Ladysmith principal who serves as the program director.

Ladysmith helps students get F-1 or J-1 visas. The former allow students to study in the United States for one year. The latter allow visits for the length of the school year, Lindau said.

If students use J-1 visas first, regulations allow them to use F-1 visas in their second years. Students on J-1 visas are like traditional foreign-exchange students: They pay no tuition but are counted in district enrollment, which boosts district revenue.

Students on F-1 visas pay $18,900 for tuition, room and board. Fifteen of the 43 students are on F-1 visas this year, Lindau said.

Ladysmith had been suffering from declining enrollment, which means less money under the state funding formula, Lindau said.

The foreign students boost district revenues and allow the high school to maintain programs that it otherwise might have had to cut in recent years as the state restricted school funding, he added.

“If people think were doing this and making hand-over-fist money, it's not the case. And if other school districts say, 'Oh, gee we should do what Ladysmith is doing,' they have no idea the work that goes into this,” Lindau said.

Another benefit is diversity, which Ladysmith didn't have before, Lindau said.

The largest group of foreigners is from China, but Ladysmith also hosts students from South Korea, Thailand, Brazil, Kazakhstan and Ecuador, King said. In the past, students have come from Jordan, Norway, Germany, Spain and Lebanon.

“Forty-five is our maximum as it does not change the 'complexion' of Ladysmith High School," Lindau said in an email. “Our goal is not to change LHS to a school filled with international students but to add to diversity.”

The foreign students also might boost district test scores, although officials said they have not measured that.

“Education in the eyes of the international students is extremely important, and that translates into desire and performance in the classroom and outside the classroom, and our local students see that,” King said.

“I've had a student tell me that the curve in the class just went higher. He said, 'I have to work hard.' I'm sure it rubs off,” King said.

Foreign students can suffer from homesickness. Cultural clashes occur, but these are not big problems, King said.

“They often comment about how beautiful it is, how quiet it is, how safe. They can't believe they can step outside and see all the stars that we have here,” King said.

“The kids really blend in well with their American peers, and they're hanging out together after school and on sports teams and clubs, and they enjoy the camaraderie,” King added.

Asked what he would advise other schools interested in such a program, Lindau said they should remember that they are the local parents of these students, 24/7.

“You need to be aware of that up front and plan accordingly,” he said.

Ladysmith hears directly from interested parents overseas but also relies on American agencies that have partner agencies in other countries to recruit students.

This works well, King said, but the public school district in Oxford, Mich., has gone a different route.

Oxford, like Ladysmith, would not agree to a site visit from The Gazette, but administrators gave generously of their time on the phone.

Oxford

The Oxford School District's international program is the closest to the vision that Janesville Superintendent Karen Schulte has described, and that's no accident.

Schulte led a team of educators from Janesville to Michigan last November to learn how Oxford does it.

The Oxford district has 5,500 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, compared with Janesville's 9,600.

Oxford Superintendent William Skilling said he was hired as the national recession and the depressed auto industry were kicking Michigan's budgets in the gut.

Oxford's surrounding county had more international businesses than any county in the United States, many of them with Chinese connections. The county executive in 2007 called for the teaching of Mandarin Chinese in all districts in the county.

Skilling set up programs so that all students were required to study either Mandarin or Spanish for 11 years, so they could become fluent.

A residence school for foreign students was then planned to make the local students' language learning more authentic and to impart greater cultural understanding, Skilling said.

China was chosen not only for the local connections but because American students should be ready to live in a world in which the Chinese economy becomes even more dominant than it is today, Skilling said.

“These are going to be the future political and business leaders who are going to be working with China,” he said.

Oxford's international school started in 2011. It has 39 Chinese students and one from Russia this year. Students from a sister school in Mexico are expected next year.

Skilling projects 200 students from China in three years.

Students now live with host families, but a residence is being built on the high school grounds in partnership with a Chinese organization.

The residence is needed because the community could never provide enough host families as the numbers rise, he said.

The international student center, as it is called, will include hotel-like accommodations for parents, who like to visit for one to three months at a time, Skilling said. The hotel nearest to Oxford is 7 miles away.

Oxford does not use an agent or agencies to recruit students. It has made its own connections in China, a model that Janesville is emulating.

Oxford formed partnerships with 11 sister schools in China and created two schools in China, in partnership with the Chinese schools, that prepare Chinese students to come to Oxford.

Skilling was disdainful of schools that get into the international student business for the money.

Imagine sending your 16-year-old—your only child—thousands of miles to attend a school in a foreign country. The school should be prepared to care for those students as if they are their own, not look at them as dollar signs, Skilling said.

Agents who recruit students tend to be money-driven, Skilling said. He has heard of agents who have failed to deliver payments, leaving schools holding the bag.

“My advice is you work directly with the schools,” Skilling said.

Janesville's Schulte has a similar approach and cites Skilling as her model.

“We want a longstanding relationship where we can feel good about it,” Schulte said.

“We're not entrepreneurs. We're edu-preneurs,” Skilling said.

An entrepreneur's decisions are driven by profit. An edu-preneur focuses on preparing students for a global marketplace, Skilling said.

Oxford charges $10,000 in tuition, which does not include travel and other costs, Skilling said.

Oxford has about $700,000 in this year's budget that would not be there if not for the international program, Skilling said, but educational goals drive the program. The district couldn't continue its foreign-language programs without that money, he said.

“If you focus on quality of education and opportunity, you will find you do better because parents, more so today than in the past, are willing to sacrifice more to make sure they get the quality education to make sure their children can compete in the 21st century,” Skilling said.

Oxford's international students stay for three years. To keep students longer, the district partners with Rochester College, which enrolls the students, during their last two years of high school. College students are allowed visas for multiple years.

Students must take 12 college credits each semester, all taught at the high school, and they usually take about three high school classes, as well.

All international students who have graduated are at U.S. universities, which is their goal, Skilling said. Their years in an English-speaking school prepare them for the academic English they will need in higher education—skills that are hard to come by in China.

Skilling has not studied the academic effect of having the foreign students in school, but he believes it helps.

“When you bring in students who are highly motivated, it raises everybody up,” Skilling said, and that boosts motivation and achievement.

Skilling said his initiatives faced local opposition in the beginning, mostly from people whose children were already out of school.

Teaching Mandarin was a hard sell in a community hard hit by economic losses, which many linked to competition from cheap labor overseas, he said.

At the same time, state aid to schools dropped. Even today, Oxford receives $500 less per student than in 2007, Skilling said.

Nevertheless, Oxford has record enrollments and revenue, Skilling said, and that's because of the focus on improving educational opportunities and closing global achievement gaps.

Milwaukee

Matt Gibson, a former public school superintendent, is principal of the Wisconsin International Academy, a for-profit business that provides housing and English-language instruction for Chinese students in the Milwaukee area.

The students live in the academy's dormitory, eat academy food and are provided transportation to school and extracurriculars at Dominican, St. Thomas More, Catholic Memorial, Pius and Martin Luther high schools.

The academy provides daily English-language instruction at the schools, host families, tutors and student residence advisers.

Students must attend study halls from 7-9 p.m. each weeknight. Weekend activities expose students to American culture, “much like a good parent would do, taking their child on field trips,” Gibson said.

Character development, study skills and safety are emphasized. Students can go out on their own, but they must go in pairs and sign out and in, Gibson said.

All this costs more than $30,000 a year, with final costs depending on whether students sign up for extra courses to prepare them for college-entrance exams.

Fifty-three students attended the academy in its first year, 2012-13. Ninety attend this year. More students and more affiliated schools are planned, Gibson said.

Many Chinese students have attended boarding schools for much of their educations, Gibson noted, so they are used to that style of living. Most go home for the winter holiday.

Students will spend a minimum of two years and as many as four years with the academy. Two or three visits a year from parents is typical.

“(Milwaukee) becomes a vacation destination for them,” Gibson said.

The academy also serves 35 students who attend UW-Milwaukee.

The academy leases space but plans to buy space for classrooms, a research area and study rooms as well as living quarters, Gibson said. All students now are Chinese, but expansion is planned. South Korea, Brazil and Spain are targeted.

Gibson said his impressions from Chinese parents is that they prefer the American education system's emphasis on interaction, problem-solving, confidence-building and entrepreneurship, which are qualities reportedly in short supply in Chinese schools.

Janesville

Schulte takes many of her cues from Oxford, but it seems likely her Janesville International Education Program will not be identical to any of the programs presented here.

Janesville is in the early stages of developing ties to Chinese schools. The district is hosting “institutes,” which are short-term immersions for Chinese students. The next one is in January.

Arrangements are being made for a Parker High School teacher to teach computer programming to Chinese and local students simultaneously, via Internet technology.

Eventually, Schulte wants foreign students attending local high schools full time.

Janesville's director of information technology is traveling to China but also Cambodia and Thailand this fall, and Schulte said she recently heard from schools in Slovakia and Columbia, expressing interest.

Schulte says she is looking to give local students an advantage in the global economy while meeting the goals the school board has set:  boosting revenue and enrollment.

“It's not all about China,” she said.

 



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