As More International Students Enroll, Independent Schools Find Ways to Welcome Them

Jenny Wells wanted to help her six Chinese students who were studying English improve their skills, so she turned to an unlikely source — the magazine Businessweek.

The students at White Mountain School in Bethlehem, N.H., were active gamers, Wells says. The Businessweek article discussed how China might limit players on online gaming platforms to no more than two hours of play a day, a hot topic among gamers.

That discussion flashpoint, she says, helped make a useful connection between their homeland and their language studies. “In that action,” Wells says, “they can learn how to structure and support arguments, and it will come out in a debate that will allow them to practice speaking in a public and academic way.”

Finding ways to sharpen such skills is a key priority for independent schools that are enrolling an increasing number of students whose primary language is not English. Data from the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), which has 1,600 member institutions, shows a sharp growth in students with F-1 student visas, from 13,881 in 2005 to 31,122 in 2015.

Leading the way were students from China, numbering 14,579 in 2015 from just 348 in 2005, followed by students from Mexico, Canada, Vietnam, Spain, Russia, and Brazil. 

Myra McGovern, vice president of media at NAIS, says as the number of international students ballooned, programs helping students to improve their English grew as well. These programs are known as English as a second language (ESL), English for speakers of other languages (ESOL), and English language learner programs (ELL).

“Most of the independent schools that offer ESL are doing so to attract foreign boarding students who have some English proficiency but need to hone their skills and improve their chances to get into college,” she says. 

A diverse student body also helps schools provide a richer experience for everyone who is enrolled, McGovern added. “It helps all students acquire cultural competency,” she says, “and it provides different perspectives to different parts of the world.”

With so many students from so many countries, no single template governs ESL programs at independent schools or the supporting services that help international students feel comfortable. Holidays, performances, and native foods are typical ways to help bridge the international culture gap, but McGovern says those basics can show up in a variety of approaches. “I think it really depends on the community and how it’s structured,” she says, “and how the school works to integrate students from all different backgrounds and perspectives into a larger whole. It’s something that schools talk about and work on, but there’s no one right answer.”

The following are solutions that some schools have found.

Atlanta International School
Atlanta, Ga.
An International Baccalaureate school enrolling students from preschool through 12th grade, Atlanta International has students from 94 different countries who speak 60 different languages. International students comprise half the 1,280 total enrollment, coming primarily from Europe, followed by South America and the Middle East. They are typically children of business executives, diplomats, doctors, or university faculty.

Reid Mizell, the school’s head of admission, marketing, and financial aid, says all students are required to take at least two languages, so for those who come speaking no English, it becomes their second language, or maybe even their third or more.

The youngest students may be in a full immersion preschool program, but when they get to kindergarten, it becomes partial immersion — part in English and part in their native language.

Mizell says students’ aptitude at learning a new language can be surprising. “Some kids may need a couple of years of more support,” she says, “but it’s amazing when you’re in an environment where everyone speaks more than one language. It becomes a very normal thing.”

Learning another language is not the only advantage of going to class in an international environment, she adds. 

“There’s a difference in perspective,” Mizell says, “and the ability to be in a learning environment where there are multiple viewpoints — the way you look at history, the way you look at politics and art and literature. It can change depending on what country you come from. It’s a very rich environment to learn in. When they get out into the world, the students feel confident to step forward into opportunities they might not have had if they had not been in a school like this.”

To help make the atmosphere more welcoming, the school hosts a United Nations day in the primary school;  visitors share the food and culture of their country and talk about inclusion and belonging, Mizell says. “We work hard to figure out ways to make sure that [the students] feel they belong, and their families too,” she says. “We’re always up for a party.”

The Athenian School
Danville, Calif.
Michelle Park, international student coordinator and ESL department chair at The Athenian School, says enrollment of international students has been steady over the past five years. They now make up approximately 10 percent of the student body of 500, coming primarily from Asia but also from countries such as Ukraine, Germany, and Mexico.

With limits on how many students the school will take from any one country, they try to diversify enrollment. “We want to serve the whole child,” Park says, “and multicultural understanding and international relations help do that.”

The school’s three ESL teachers place students according to an assessment of their English skills. The curriculum focuses on reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

Park says the classes use outside resources — ranging from magazine articles to TED Talks to YouTube videos.— to supplement their texts, plus novels and short stories in literature class along with composition and essay writing. Because student ability can vary, the school tries to match the material to individual skill levels. At the end of the two-year ESL program, Park says, “they should be good to go to study with native English speakers.”

“It’s more of a pacing issue,” Park adds. “We want to make sure we’re moving at a comfortable pace for them to master the material. They’re all pretty proficient. Some of them don’t even need ESL because they studied so much English in their home countries.”

Sarah Freedman, director of communication, says the school’s emphasis on values like equity and inclusion help students maintain their native culture while learning American customs in the classroom and in other activities. “Humanities classes are multilingual,” she says. “They’re watching, they’re listening, they’re writing, they’re going out and practicing things. They’re encouraged to practice their English as much as possible during the day.”

White Mountain School
Bethlehem, N.H.
Of the 138 students at White Mountain, 29 are international, according to Mike Peller, assistant head of teaching and learning. Most are from China, with others from places such as Kenya, the Czech Republic, and the Dominican Republic.

Peller says the school doesn’t have a requirement for English proficiency to be admitted, although students do take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) when they arrive to see where they should be placed. 

Peller says they try to leverage students’ curiosity and the pride they have in their native country to help them learn as much and as deeply as they can.

Because White Mountain is a boarding school, its programs tend to be an immersion experience. Jenny Wells, the ESL teacher, says small classes help create a better connection between students and the world outside in what can be an isolated New England atmosphere. “We use language to talk about and explore everything,” she says. “I find out about their interests and contact their other teachers, and we create curriculum that allows them to work with the skills they have.”

“The world is a big and amazing place,” Wells adds, “and there are real people who make that trip and tell you about their experiences and their life. It opens doors that are impossible to close. It’s important to know what’s out there, and one way of knowing what’s out there is to bring it in.”

Dale Singer is a contributing writer for DiversityIS. This article ran in our Spring 2019 issue.