LOS ANGELES — Yosemite High School once offered six wood-shop classes. Now there are three.
Things got worse when a new high school opened in a neighboring district and many students transferred. Campus enrollment is down from 1,100 five years ago to about 700 today.
School officials are now looking to a faraway place for salvation. As soon as next fall, Yosemite High could welcome 25 students from China who would pay $10,000 or more in tuition to enjoy an American public education amid mountain scenery. They would boost revenue and inject an international flavor into a school with few immigrant families.
Two tuition-paying Chinese students are at Yosemite High, in Oakhurst, Calif., this year. Xiao “Travis” Ma, of Inner Mongolia, plays clarinet in the marching band, and Chengyu “Johnny” Zhang, of Shanghai, runs on the cross-country team. Though the local Chinese food is not to their liking, they appreciate the clean air and elbow room.
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“Having students who pay tuition helps keep some of our programs more full,” said Stephanie Samuels, a guidance counselor and international coordinator at Yosemite High. “We don’t have a lot of exposure to other cultures. Our students benefit not only from the academic challenge but from meeting people from other parts of the world.”
In looking abroad to fill seats, Yosemite is following the lead of underpopulated high schools in Maine and upstate New York, among other places. The number of tuition-paying foreign students in U.S. public high schools has jumped from a few hundred nationwide in 2007 to nearly 3,000 last year, according to federal statistics obtained by the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel.
With newly prosperous families eager to educate their children in the West, China has become the latest frontier in public-school financing.
The rapid, largely unregulated growth in F-1 visa students, as they are known, has raised concerns about the role of private recruiting companies and the safety of teenagers in the country without their parents. The companies, which typically collect thousands of dollars in fees from each student, are knocking on school-districts’ doors, looking to form partnerships.
Federal law requires public schools to charge F-1 students the full cost of their educations but does not specify how that cost should be calculated. Schools usually take their per-pupil state allotment and add supplemental grants to come up with the tuition figure.
“Because there’s so much money that can be made, and because there’s a lack of regulation, you’re just going to see a lot of people rushing into this field driven by profit rather than the desire to provide students and schools with a quality experience,” said Jay Chen, president of the Hacienda La Puente Unified school board.
The vast majority of tuition-paying international students still study at private high schools — 62,000 last year, up from about 6,000 five years ago. Most are from China or South Korea and plan to stay in the United States for college, bypassing a brutally competitive educational system back home.
Because foreign students are limited to one year of study at U.S. public schools, some then transfer to private schools, where there is no time limit, and where they are often charged steeper tuition than their American classmates.
Traditional exchange students, who use J-1 visas and must be sponsored by a State Department-approved nonprofit, do not pay tuition and return to their home countries within a year. In the past, F-1 visas were used primarily for college and graduate study. Now, they appeal to Chinese high school students whose primary aim is not cultural exchange but admission to an Ivy League university.
The Council on Standards for International Educational Travel offers a voluntary certification process, which includes background checks for host families and middlemen. So far, few F-1 companies have signed up, said Christopher Page, CSIET’s executive director.
In addition to recruiting students, the companies serve as a liaison between parents and schools and set up the students’ living arrangements.
Steven Dorsey, who manages the international-student program at Walnut Valley, Calif., has been barraged by companies looking to enroll Chinese students. But he refuses to work with them or expand beyond the 20 or so students, mostly from China and Taiwan, who find the district by word-of-mouth.
In nearby Hacienda La Puente, Calif., school-board member Joseph Chang was censured by his colleagues over allegations that he used his influence to benefit one of the companies. An investigative report commissioned by the district found that students were sometimes staying in homes without adult supervision, even lacking adequate food and heat in some instances.
Demand from China is so strong that enrollment should approach the cap next year, and Tower Bridge, one of the companies, may eventually expand into other school districts, said Merlyn Neilson, a company official.
“We’re looking forward to having the students graduate from a highly rated high school in order to be able to get to UCs and, of course, to do the Ivy League,” Neilson said.