The Growth of International Student Programs at
Independent Day Schools
Sid Rowell, M.A.


It is in our shared interests to ensure that these students have a
meaningful and positive experience in the U.S.,
and at the same time build a program that is sustainable

nternational student programs are not new to schools in the United States. In fact, the roots of some international student programs date back to the early 1840’s. What’s new today is the unprecedented growth of the international student population applying to and enrolling in U.S. universities and colleges. Newer still is the dramatic rise in the number of international students enrolling at private and independent schools—and not just boarding schools with an established tradition of international student programs—but independent days schools. According to a recent poll by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the growth of international student programs in the U.S. has increased more than 44% over the past decade. According to the Secondary School Admission Test Board (SSATB), there are currently 55,000 international students in the U.S. attending independent schools. SSATBalso reports a 231 percent increase in Chinese students taking the SSAT for admission to secondary schools in the U.S. since 2009. And, among SSATB member schools, 87 percent list China and Korea as the top international student enrollees at U.S. independent schools.
Private and independent high schools are keenly aware of the opportunities and potential benefits that accompany an international student program—enhancing diversity and a global perspective to the student body, enriching a school’s multicultural curriculum, and, of course, generating additional tuition revenue. Many independent schools, particularly boarding schools, have offered international student programs for decades. However, the mounting demand from international students—especially students from China—to study in the U.S. has resulted in traditional independent day schools to also begin responding to the need with new international student programs. While the added programs bring a wealth of benefits to these schools, international student programs also pose many new challenges.
One such school recently introduced its first International Student Program (ISP) this September when the school welcomed six high school girls from Beijing as full participants in its academic and extracurricular programs. Under the guidance of the school’s Multi-Cultural Affairs Director and its International Student Coordinator, the students take a number of advanced Upper School classes with additional coursework in English. In addition to enjoying the curriculum and the challenges of their classes, the students are especially interested in making new friends and participating in all that this school has to offer, including sports and clubs.
School administrators are optimistic that these students will continue to enjoy their experience as they benefit from the American educational system and learn firsthand about American culture. Their contributions to school life are many: simply by their very presence on campus, the lives of local students are enriched, offering all students — American and Chinese — a unique multicultural opportunity.
A focus on diversity is a key element of many independent day schools today. It is widely known that an academic environment that is inclusive, multicultural and respects individual differences is one where all students are better served, preparing them for college and the workplace, and broadening their educational experience. Students’ lives, individually and collectively, are enriched and made fuller. By emphasizing character development, another hallmark of an independent school education, along with promoting and deepening students’ understanding of the inherent value and benefits of a diverse community, all schools are strengthened and contribute to the future in meaningful ways.
The benefits that an international student program brings to a school are numerous. These programs open doors to unique experiences, not only for students, but also for faculty, staff and parents. The chance for a local to study and play alongside a teammate, or share lunch and conversation with a fellow student from Beijing is both exciting and invaluable.
International student programs—particularly those that include students from China and Korea—are often part of a greater effort to improve diversity and offer cultural awareness within an independent day school. But they are also critically important to improving the awareness, advancement and economic significance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education within independent schools. Independent day schools today are leveraging grants and making significant investments to not only advance diversity goals but also to offer specialized programs and activities which encourage their own students to embrace today’s cultural influences. Academic programs such as Mandarin and other non-traditional languages are now commonly being offered at the middle and upper school level. Lower schools are exploring alternative learning programs such as Singapore Math as a new approach for students during these critical years of early learning and appreciation for mathematics. In terms of offering more cultural awareness to students and faculty, initiatives among independent schools are also occurring, such as student travel to the East and even student/teacher exchange opportunities.
The addition of an international student program to an independent day school also brings with it a wide array of new challenges. While traditional boarding schools provide housing and are equipped to offer students extracurricular activities and entertainment beyond the school day, independent day schools that want to offer international student programs have to think creatively and strategically about services not typically within their purview. Besides the obvious requirements of providing safe, supervised housing, meal plans and transportation, considerations must also be made for offering English as a Second Language courses, weekend activities and supervision for group travel. There will likely be other types of support—support more typically provided by parents or guardians—that a day school community will be called upon to provide when hosting a group of international students. Independent day schools that want to expand their international student presence are busy developing programs that extend beyond the eight-hour day and which thoughtfully foster a meaningful cultural exchange. A recent survey by the SSATB lists the top challenges for day schools enrolling international students: assessment, housing, English proficiency, communication with parents and meeting parent expectations.
Independent day schools are responding to the growing demand for international student programs and welcome the many benefits that an international student program offers. In doing so, they are also developing new services and additional infrastructure to meet the challenges that arise from introducing a new student population. It is certainly in our shared interests to ensure that international students have a meaningful and positive experience in the U.S., and at the same time, build a program that is sustainable.

The various aspects of developing a comprehensive and successful international student program will continue to challenge independent day schools to think “outside the classroom” in order to offer these students a rich balance of academics, extra-curricular activities and social interaction. However, the case for opening the doors to such opportunities is easily made. International student programs offer day school communities—students, faculty, staff and parents—an opportunity to learn from the exchange of cultural experiences, our differences and commonalities, and in a small way, strengthen the bonds of humanity across continents.  

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Copyright 2013 VincentCurtis