The rising number of Chinese students in American Catholic high schools

"Wait, I don’t get it. How could Jesus be 100 percent human and 100 percent God? How is that even possible?” It was surely not the first time such a question arose in a high school religion class. I was sitting in on this junior theology class to evaluate the performance of the teacher, a member of Providence College’s PACT program, a master’s degree program that places recent college graduates as full-time teachers in Catholic schools.

As I looked around the classroom, I saw a distinct look of bewilderment, even cluelessness, on the faces of students. Some of the confusion stemmed from the theological concept at hand, but much of it I attributed to their limited grasp of English. This particular theology class of 20 was composed entirely of international students, mostly from China. Many enrolled in this urban Catholic school in order to receive a diploma and enter the pipeline to the coveted American university system. In its yearly battle to fill seats, this Catholic high school was eager to welcome them. Chinese students pay 50 percent more than local children to attend.

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According to Foreign Policy magazine, the number of Chinese high school students in the United States increased from fewer than 1,000 in 2005 to more than 23,000 by 2013. Of these, just under 28 percent attend Catholic schools. This influx of students from China is a lifeline to many Catholic schools around the country, as schools can charge a premium for their education. An article in The New York Times in 2014 described one Catholic school where Chinese students pay more than five times what local children pay.

Additionally, local families who host a Chinese student for the year receive a stipend for opening their homes. For the parents at one school, this amounts to a monthly payment of around $1,000. For families who struggle to pay tuition, such stipends are an added benefit for a school community. As a consequence, students from China, whose government limits both religious and academic freedoms, are in the position to help keep the doors open for many struggling Catholic schools in the United States.

While the business side of such arrangements adds up, the actual instruction of international students can be a major challenge for faculty members at Catholic schools, who often lack professional development opportunities specific to teaching foreign students. One obvious hurdle is language. While the companies that arrange student exchanges claim that Chinese students are “proficient” in English, their definition of proficiency varies widely. The result is a mixed group, with some who are completely lost during a lesson.

Beyond language, there are some striking cultural differences. Another teacher I supervise teaches American literature to a class of Chinese students. Teaching a revised curriculum mostly of her own making, she had her class read Lois Lowry’s dystopian novel The Giver in an effort to raise some universal themes of human potential with the class. The resulting conversations could have made for an interesting sociological study. Students took little issue with topics like conformity, and, much to her surprise, they were largely unmoved by the novel’s major twist: an institutional program of infanticide, known as a “release.” The teacher was left unsure if knowledge of English hampered the class discussion or if these students, who grew up in the era of China’s one-child policy, were truly ambivalent about euthanasia.

It is also unclear how Catholic schools can welcome Chinese students in a way that is most in keeping with their mission. A fundamental tenet of Catholic K-12 education is the establishment of a true partnership between the school and parents. This principle stems from the belief that the parents are the primary educators of their child. It is fair to question the nature of this partnership when students and parents are separated by thousands of miles and when Catholic schools use third-party companies, some of which are for-profit, to recruit and place Chinese students.

At the end of the day, while schools and placement agencies tout the benefits of bringing international diversity and richness to Catholic schools, the presence of large numbers of Chinese students is primarily a financial decision, a year-long transaction with clear terms. Catholic schools are to provide a high-quality, rigorous education, and Chinese parents are to pay a market-value price for that. It is a mutually beneficial relationship that leads to stability at the school and financial aid possibilities for local children.

Educating for Evangelization

Yet any school that claims to inherit the tradition of Catholic education cannot view international students just as a revenue stream. Schools that I have encountered realize this and try their best to lead all students, international or not, toward an encounter with God. In this spirit, some questions need to be addressed. Even if schools can charge Chinese students three, four or five times the normal tuition, should they do so? What is fair to the child, to the family and to the school community? What message might we be sending about unfettered capitalism, if Catholic schools keep pushing up the tuition because the market allows for it?

Further, what is fair to the teachers? For educators who might already be stretched thin, what additional expectations are placed on them? How much assistance and professional development can schools offer teachers? Are international students supposed to sit in the back and follow along, or is the expectation for a truly inclusive curriculum? Does the education promised to parents in China meet the realities of day-to-day instruction?

Lastly and most important, schools need to consider Chinese students in our shared call to focus on the new evangelization. Whatever their religious background was in China, here these students are taking part in theology classes, encountering issues of social justice and attending liturgies—all during a pivotal time in a young person’s life, a time away from home when their beliefs are taking shape. There is a lesson for all Catholic schools to heed: Financial necessity may have brought them into the school, but children from China are just that, children, whose awkward teenage years are compounded by being in a foreign culture; children who might be searching for more than fluency in English and the right grades for college admission; children who, given the right pastoral care, may be drawn into a relationship with God.

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Barry Fitzpatrick
1 year 1 month ago
Zavagnin has raised important issues that are all too often swept under the rug of financial survival as Chinese students fill empty seats in Catholic high schools that could surely use the money. But they do so at what cost to their mission, their identity, and their witness. Zavagnin says that Chinese students pay twice as much as locals to attend these schools. In my experience their total cost is more like five times, but he is right when it comes to the portion of what they pay that actually comes to the school or the sponsoring diocese. The author correctly cites the challenges as well: teacher workload, major cultural differences, serious language gaps, and fundamental religious differences that hamper any attempt at evangelization. He is also right on the mark when he calls these programs financial decisions, "a year-long transaction with clear terms." In my experience with these arrangements, there are other issues as well. Several of the sponsoring agencies, which are clearly for profit entities, have no idea whatsoever of the concept of community that is central to Catholic education, nor do they care to learn about it. It is simply not important to them. Getting the Chinese student into a good American college is their goal, and they have discovered that Catholic schools are among the best vehicles to assure that end result. Often these students are accepted into these programs to fill quotas, and they are totally unprepared for the rigors of a Catholic high school education. Communication between some agencies and the schools or dioceses is not optimal, and problems persist that are developmental in nature given the age of the students. My questions are twofold: 1) Is this arrangement fair to the students already in the schools or those on the outside who cannot afford a Catholic education? Is it right to cater to the needs of the wealthy Chinese at the expense of the less than affluent locals? 2) What does this arrangement say about the nature of the Catholic school? All schools have as part of their mission to bring Christ to all the members of their community. In the area I worked in we struggled with basic religious instruction well beyond the point of distraction in trying to educate young men and women whose answer to the question "what do you believe in?" often came back, "the state or the government." Before closing, let me confess that there are success stories. There are young Chinese men and women who, by the time they leave our schools, get the mission, understand the communal nature of their education, and even become evangelized to the point of considering becoming active members of our faith. I have no doubt of this, and I have seen examples of it. The same can be said for educating any young person who comes our way from unchurched backgrounds. There are also some intangible benefits of going to school with students from other cultures as a learning experience. Is it best, though, to solve what is clearly an enrollment and financial problem by removing young people from their primary family situations at this point in their lives so that we can have a better bottom line at audit time? Just as Catholic schools were never intended to be therapeutic alternatives to decaying public school systems, so too Catholic schools that adopt a maintenance and survival approach to filling seats betray the underlying reasons for their existence. Yes,"all are welcome" in Catholic schools. But is that what these programs swear allegiance to, or is it "all can pay up front?"
Clare Roach
1 year 1 month ago
As a coordinator of the English as a New Language program at the University of Notre Dame, we, too, have been witnessesing the phenomenon of increasing numbers of international students in Catholic schools. We work with Catholic schoolteachers to grow their expertise in instructing English learners, and in recent years there has been a notable increase in high school educators participating in our program precisely because they want to better meet the needs of the international students in their classrooms. The challenges noted by Anthoy Zavagnin are consistent with the stories we hear from our teachers who serve in schools across the country. But, it’s important that readers understand the greater landscape of which these international students are a part. English learners are the single fastest growing population of students in America. Approximately eighty percent of English learners in the U.S. speak Spanish as their native language, and an overwhelming amount of those Spanish-speaking students are Catholic. Ensuring English learners thrive in our schools is vital. It has long been a legacy of Catholic schools in America and is a challenge we should embrace, not run away from.
William Rydberg
1 year 1 month ago
Personally, I am glad that people who would otherwise never be exposed to Catholicism are, albeit a short period of time. One thinks of the millions of American citizens that don't have experience of Catholic Education. If 100% of Foreign Students attended Catholic High Schools, such would be the Ideal in my opinion. in Christ, Teacher

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