By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Serving families in northeast Florida, the Episcopal School of Jacksonville has 860 day students but no boarders or dormitories. But that has not stopped the school from enrolling youngsters from China.
In fact, the school aims to more than double its Chinese student enrollment, from 9 to 20 in the next two years, with help from local host families who would provide accommodations. Screening and settling foreign nationals is labor-intensive, but the goal is so important that the school has hired an outside firm to manage it.
The school wants more Chinese students in order to build ties across the Pacific, such that Episcopal School of Jacksonville students could spend weeks each year with host families in China, said Peggy Fox, admissions director. There’s also a not-so-fringe-benefit: Chinese families always pay the full tuition bill, nearly $20,000, and receive no financial aid.
“Whatever countries they come from, we need them to be able to pay,” Fox said. “We have enough need right here in Jacksonville that we need to spend the financial aid here in town.”
Like many of the 1,198 Episcopal schools, Episcopal School of Jacksonville is adjusting to realities of a post-recession world and finding that international students have a pivotal role to play. Having more nationalities, languages, and religions represented on campus makes for unprecedented learning opportunities, administrators say, both formal and informal. It also challenges schools, they add, to pursue their Episcopal missions with new, vigorous intentionality.
As America’s economy faltered after 2007, religious schools saw enrollments drop 10 percent, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. But international students have helped fill the gaps. Asian student enrollments in U.S. religious schools are up 75 percent since 2008, from 10,611 to 18,591. Most of the growth has been from China.
“If some of our schools wanted to, they could fill up many times over with full-pay Chinese alone,” said Peter Upham, executive director of the Association of Boarding Schools, which includes 37 Episcopal schools. “There’s an enormous demand in China for schools in the U.S., and it’s far in excess of the students that are actually enrolled today.”
The trend is reflected in Episcopal schools. They have seen steady growth in international students since the recession began, according to the National Association of Independent Schools.
On average, Episcopal boarding schools now draw about 20 percent of their students from abroad, according the National Association of Episcopal Schools (NAES). Some, including St. Timothy’s School in Stevenson, Maryland, and St. Margaret’s School in Tappahannock, Virginia, draw closer to 30 percent of their students from foreign countries.
Others are deciding it’s time to take the international plunge. St. Thomas Episcopal School, a day school in Houston, announced in February it would begin accepting international students for the first time this year.
One of several driving factors behind internationalization has been the economic downturn. Though Episcopal schools largely weathered the hard times without calamity, many saw endowments and budgets shrink, said Daniel Heischman, executive director of NAES. At the same time, more parents with enrolled children came to need financial aid. Schools have adjusted to meet the need, Heischman said, as virtually all Episcopal schools came to devote a larger portion of a shrinking resource pie to financial assistance.
Had full-paying international students not matriculated in growing numbers, schools likely would have had to eliminate more staff or make cuts elsewhere. Yet because internationals helped keep coffers sufficiently filled, schools have for the most part been able to maintain expected levels of service and quality.
America’s economic woes do not fully explain, however, why one might hear German, Mandarin, or Portuguese spoken in prep-school dorms or day-school lounges these days. Strong economies in Brazil, Germany, India, South Korea, and especially China have enabled more families to afford private education in the United States. Governments, including those of the United States and China, have also become less restrictive with visas as years have passed since the terrorist strikes of September 2001. Eager to educate global citizens, schools have relished the chance to turn their classrooms into microcosms of the world.
Schools are embracing the new landscape. Consider Virginia Episcopal School in Lynchburg, Virginia, where one year for boarders costs $44,100, most of the 200 students are boarders, and almost 25 percent come from overseas. Before the recession, the school had 250 students. But the economy took a toll, and now administrators see 225 as an ideal number, including a few internationals who take classes without seeking a diploma. Casualties of the recession include such non-essentials as a fencing team, afterschool cycling, and a Russian history class, said Garth Ainslie, director of admissions. Foreign students, however, are very much here to stay.
Adjusting to smaller numbers, at least for the time being, has been a major storyline of late at Episcopal School of Jacksonville, too. As hard times squeezed household budgets, the school saw enrollment levels shrink by 5.5 percent, from slightly more than 900 before the recession to about 860 today.
Times are somewhat better now, but Jacksonville area families still struggle to afford full tuition. To keep students enrolled, the school nearly doubled its financial aid budget from $1.4 million before the recession to $2.4 million today. Tuition-paying international students are more important than ever to the school’s economic model and to its ambition to restore enrollments to 900.
Challenging times have forced some hard choices, Heischman said. Oversight boards have needed to identify what is central to their mission and what is extraneous. Educators are learning to weave more and more international students into Episcopal school communities.
“What the recession did was help a great number of our Episcopal schools identify and articulate their Episcopal mission better, rather than to water it down,” Heischman said. “It forced our schools to understand their niche. … That led them to re-examine and be able to articulate what it means to be an Episcopal school.”
Fostering healthy diversity in these settings, it turns out, is not as easy as admitting more students from overseas. Because demand from China and South Korea is so strong, private schools find they must be careful when shaping new classes, lest entire sub-communities take root and become insular.
“The school doesn’t want to create a situation where there are these language islands, which happens sometimes if there are too many international students who speak the same language,” said Myra McGovern of the National Association of Independent Schools.
To help schools strike an optimal balance in their student bodies, the National Association of Episcopal Schools has been bringing school representatives along for recruiting fairs, not only in Asia but elsewhere, such as Turkey and Latin America. Representatives from St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Austin, Texas, have traveled recently with NAES to Latin America in a bid to ensure its substantial international population reflects the world, not just Asia. Virginia Episcopal School officials made a recruiting trip for the first time this year to Saudi Arabia.
“It seems natural and normal to want to diversify [the international student population], but it’s hard because that requires an investment” to travel and recruit, Ainslie said. “The demand coming out of China especially is strong, and [enrolling those students] doesn’t cost us very much.”
Once international students have enrolled, today’s new intentionality about Episcopal mission comes to shape how they engage campus communities. Example: at Virginia Episcopal School, post-recession changes include meals with assigned seating twice a week. Adults are present at every table. And because seating charts change regularly, students expand their social circles by getting to know more of their peers.
“You get to meet new teachers and new students,” Ainslie said. “There’s not going to be Chinese spoken at those tables.”
It’s all part of learning social skills, sustaining polite conversation, and showing respect for those who are different — all values and abilities that VES aims to foster. Having a large percentage of internationals has helped catalyze the school to assure this type of character formation happens with thoughtful guidance and is not left to chance.
Religious differences, which inevitably come with internationalization, are not causing schools to change their worship practices. Most of those that have chapel require attendance for students and faculty, though some offer an alternative activity that students must do if they opt out of chapel. Schools usually require at least one religion course. And in the spirit of bearing authentic witness, if international students come to faith in Christ, that step is — at least on some campuses — regarded as cause for celebration.
St. Thomas Episcopal School forbids Muslim head coverings on the grounds that they make individuals stand out in a setting where students wear uniforms. Students must attend daily Episcopal worship services regardless of their religious affiliation. And although they do not have to pray or sing, the hope is they will, said Donna Cropper, the school’s communications director.
At Virginia Episcopal School, an African student last year got baptized and the community celebrated with him, Ainslie said. At Episcopal School of Jacksonville, no one tries to change a student’s beliefs and all faiths are respected, Fox said. Still, the hope is that some might come to faith in Christ.
“We just hope that by being associated with the Christian community and going to chapel they may at some point learn more about Christianity and perhaps decide that they’d like to become Christians,” Fox said.
To be sure, schools welcome religious diversity in these post-recession days and make a point not to pressure students about faith. Some provide access to Jewish and Muslim chaplains, for instance.
But one effect of the recession is renewed resolve to own the tradition of Episcopal education. That includes sharing all the tradition has to offer, from liturgical worship to communal values, and hoping some of its wisdom rubs off.
G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a TLC Correspondent based in Massachusetts.