Facing a smaller pool of potential local students, the administrators at more private high schools in Western New York are looking beyond their traditional recruiting grounds.
In some cases, they look far beyond – all the way to places such as China, Japan and Korea.
Students from those countries and others will head to classrooms across Erie County as school begins this week.
Chinese students, in particular, are finding their way to Buffalo-area high schools with growing regularity, paying full price – and then some – for an American education that will prepare them for a U.S. college or university.
“They were knocking at the door, saying they want a preparatory education and they want to go to American colleges and universities,” said Thomas Braunscheidel, principal of St. Francis High School in Athol Springs, which re-opened its mothballed residence hall in 2011 to accommodate 26 Chinese students.
In May, the school graduated 12 Chinese young men, all of whom are now pursuing higher education in the United States.
Other schools have jumped into the international student market, as well.
Bishop Timon-St. Jude High School for the first time will welcome two Chinese and two Japanese boys to its South Buffalo campus this week.
St. Mary’s High School in Lancaster, which last fall enrolled seven international students who lived with host families, opened a residence hall this week in a former convent to house 11 students.
Buffalo Seminary purchased an additional house in the Elmwood Avenue neighborhood to accommodate some of the 42 international students enrolled at the Bidwell Parkway campus.
Girls from China, Japan, Germany and other countries now make up nearly 20 percent of the student population at Buffalo Seminary, which this year achieved its highest enrollment since 1971, due in large part to its international mix.
“The world is changing. We’re a much smaller world than we were 20 years ago,” said Jody Douglass, head of school.
Cardinal O’Hara High School in the Town of Tonawanda, the Park School in Snyder and the Gow School in South Wales also have significant numbers of international students.
Douglass and other school officials said students from outside the U.S. add diversity to their campuses and provide a crucial enrollment boost.
Many of the area’s private schools offer up to 70 percent of their local pupils some form of financial aid, so tuition often does not cover a school’s full costs for educating a student.
International students bring additional fiscal relief for schools because they pay full tuition and fees – $40,000 or more at some area schools, when room, board, travel and visa expenses are tallied.
“You not only need the students, you need the students who can pay tuition,” said Deacon Michael McKeating, chairman of the St. Mary’s High School board of trustees. “They pay full price. There aren’t many other students that pay full price.”
Most of the international students are coming from China, the world’s most populous nation, where an American higher education long has been seen as a ticket to success.
Now, Chinese families increasingly are turning their attention to secondary schools as a way for their kids to perfect English and understand American culture before entering college.
But why Buffalo-area schools?
During a recent recruiting trip to China, Braunscheidel discovered part of the answer: the University at Buffalo.
Buffalo is known in China largely because many of the nation’s leaders in government and industry graduated from UB.
“Our agent communicated that was an advantage,” he said.
Geography also apparently plays a role.
Thomas Sullivan, principal of Bishop Timon-St. Jude, said the region is ideally situated for globe-trotting Chinese families.
“They’re looking for places that have close proximity to international cities, like Toronto,” he said.
Chicago and New York City are both within a day’s travel, too.
“If it’s a quick flight, that’s not a problem for them, not at all,” he said.
YuChen Meng focused on the Buffalo area at the recommendation of his father’s friend, who attended SUNY Buffalo State years ago.
Meng, who goes by “Michael,” said he was bored by the regimented education he was getting in Chinese schools, where students focus on academics for up to 12 hours a day, with the sole purpose of preparing for a grueling exam known as the “gaokao,” which determines whether someone will attend college.
Meng enrolled at St. Francis in 2011 and was part of the first class of Chinese students who graduated in May from the Catholic school. He now studies information management at Syracuse University.
Meng said his experience at St. Francis better prepared him for college and the broader world. And he already misses the theater.
He did not have big roles in the last two musicals at St. Francis, but he had the chance to perform on stage in front of hundreds of people. Meng also attended the prom and played on the varsity tennis squad – other opportunities that do not exist for high school students in his hometown of Beijing.
“It was never going to happen. You go to class. You don’t have time for musicals,” Meng said. “In China, students, parents, teachers only care about grades.”
The introduction of a critical mass of Chinese students has led to some interesting dynamics on some area high school campuses, especially in Catholic schools that include religious studies and require attendance at regular Masses.
Chinese students, who tend to be agnostic, atheist or Buddhist, are not excused from those requirements, but school officials said they do not proselytize either.
At St. Francis, the Chinese students are asked to “respectfully participate” at Masses, and they are encouraged to approach religion courses “like a history class,” Braunscheidel said.
Mary Holzerland, the principal of Cardinal O’Hara, said some of the international students express interest in understanding more about religion because they are “so curious and so excited about learning.” Many of the students also are interested in playing sports, she said.
Braunscheidel acknowledged the Chinese students form their own “subculture” at St. Francis and sometimes slip into speaking in their native language, despite regular encouragement against it.
But after a few months on campus, they assimilate into the larger culture of the school, just like kids from Hamburg or Orchard Park, he said.
Chinese students have been able to bring vastly different perspectives to the classroom on everything from gun control to the Cold War and Tiananmen Square, Braunscheidel said.
Those are the kinds of intangible benefits administrators at Bishop Timon-St. Jude hope to realize for the school, along with the financial benefits of adding international students.
“Our kids have to get used to other cultures. We tend to get a little insulated here,” Sullivan said.
If all goes well, Timon-St. Jude expects to grow its international program to as many as 25 students over the course of a few years. The school, which works with Erie, Pa.-based Pennsylvania International Academy, is looking at possibilities for a future dormitory.
Adding international students does not come without cost.
St. Francis spent about $1 million to reopen its dormitory. Buffalo Seminary received support from area foundations for $950,000 toward its residential spaces. Some schools bring in English-as-a-second-language teachers to assist students.
St. Mary’s hired a couple to serve as the “house parents” for a new residence for international students that just opened across the street from the school.
But most school administrators said the payoff has been tremendous.
Douglass estimated that Buffalo Seminary’s international students alone each year bring an estimated $1 million to the Buffalo region.
In addition to the tuition they pay, parents stay in local hotels and dine in local restaurants when they visit their children, she said.
Braunscheidel said the international program at St. Francis has allowed the school to put “hundreds of thousands” of dollars back into financial aid for local students.