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Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

For Chinese high-schoolers, there’s value to living and learning in Iowa

Why We Wrote This

A confluence of wants, needs, and dreams – including empty school desks and parents with money – begets an education and business model that is bringing more young students from China to the US. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
‘The social aspect is very important. As international students, all of us are a little bit worried about making friends with local students,' says Ivy Chen, a junior from China enrolled at the Clinton, Iowa, high school. She and 14 other Chinese students live in the dorms of a former college.

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In China they are known as “parachute kids.” Dropped into a foreign country at a young age to learn, they carry the ambitions of families who have made their money in China’s cutthroat capitalist era. They are sent to rub shoulders with local students, to absorb their culture, to ace the tests. Chinese are attending US high schools in record numbers: In 2005, US high schools enrolled 639 Chinese students. By 2016, that number had risen to more than 33,000. In recent years, public school systems in smaller towns with shrinking school-age populations have begun recruiting students from China to fill empty desks. Ivy Chen is among the first 15 “parachute” students in Clinton, Iowa, a blue-collar city on the banks of the Mississippi River. For Ivy and her parents, Clinton offers an American education. For the town, Ivy and the other 14 students bring diversity. The school board voted unanimously to bring Chinese teens to Clinton. As board president Eric Gettes says, “The opportunity for our kids to be exposed to someone from a different culture, to have a more global view of their education, was really exciting to us.” 

When the buzzer sounds, Ivy Chen has five minutes to get to her second class on the first day of school. At the door stands Prushia Golden, a student ambassador, who leads Ivy down the corridor, past the beige lockers, and into a fast-moving stream of athletic wear and streaked hair, the shouts and slaps of teenagers back together after summer break. 

As she walks, Ivy hugs her books to her chest. She wears a crisp white jacket and bright-green sneakers; her black bangs cover her forehead. She knows that Prushia is in precalculus, her next class, and then she sees Eason Yuan, a fellow student from China, who is also headed there. Ivy looks relieved. At this stage – day one of her junior year – she knows all of 10 students in this cavernous high school in an American city that she first set eyes on only two days earlier. 

Ivy and Eason find a table in the classroom and wait for the teacher to begin. He checks off everyone’s name and then seats them in groups of five. “Introduce yourselves to the group,” he says. “Tell them one thing that you enjoyed about summer and one thing that you didn’t enjoy.” Ivy smiles and volunteers first. “My name is Ivy,” she begins. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Chinese student Tiffany Yang (l.) helps local student Annika Reed use chopsticks.

China is already the largest market outside the United States for college recruiters. Its students made up around one-third of the 1.1 million international students enrolled in higher education in the US for the 2016-17 school year. Now Chinese are attending US high schools in record numbers, drawn by the promise of English-language immersion, a rounded education, and an earlier track to a selective American university. 

In 2005, US high schools enrolled only 639 Chinese students. By 2016, that number had risen to more than 33,000. While elite boarding schools have long catered to wealthy foreigners, the biggest beneficiary of the Chinese boom has been religiously affiliated private schools. In recent years, however, public school systems in smaller towns with shrinking school-age populations have also begun recruiting Chinese students to fill empty desks. 

“China used to send pandas. Now it sends students,” says Jiang Xueqin, a Canadian education consultant in Beijing.

In China they are known as “parachute kids.” Dropped into a foreign country – if not the US, then Australia or Britain or Canada – at a young age to learn, they carry the ambitions of families who have made their money in China’s cutthroat capitalist era. Nearly all are single children. They are sent to rub shoulders with local students, to absorb their culture, to ace the tests. Loneliness is common; packing up and going home is rarely an option. 

Ivy is among the first 15 “parachute” students in Clinton, a blue-collar city on the banks of the Mississippi River. The public high school she attends was rebuilt in the 1970s, when good jobs were still plentiful in the factories and food-processing plants. Since 1978, the same year that China began its capitalist makeover, Clinton has lost more than one-third of its manufacturing jobs. The layoffs and shutdowns have continued, including the closure in 2016 of Ashford University, a for-profit education provider that occupied a leafy hillside campus. 

The campus now belongs to a private Chinese educational group that charges students like Ivy $57,000 a year to live there and attend Clinton High School. It also provides supplemental education to the foreign students. The group aims to bring more than 300 Chinese students and vows to spread the economic benefits into the community while also injecting a dose of racial diversity and global thinking. To local leaders who have tried other initiatives to rejuvenate the town – to no avail – it feels like a lifeline. 

“The city of Clinton is looking for an initiative or an opportunity to hang its hat on, to say this is what is going to move us ahead in the future,” says Gary DeLacy, the school superintendent. 

That future isn’t here yet. The Chinese-owned academy must first gain accreditation so it can issue student visas. It will also be competing with other US schools recruiting in China. Then there’s the Trump factor, the growing fear that foreigners are less welcome. 

Ironically, when it comes to education, the trade deficit on which President Trump fixates is a $32 billion surplus, undergirded by Chinese spending. For all their shortcomings, US schools remain a global currency. Can the allure of an American education transform a town in the cornfields of Iowa? 

***

In December 2015, Brian Clem was on a fishing trip in Oregon with an investor buddy. Mr. Clem, a Democratic state representative in Oregon, was driving when his friend got a call from a real estate broker. The offer didn’t sound promising. His friend hung up on the caller – twice.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
‘I grew up in a town just like this that needs, and still needs, some engine of hope,' says Brian Clem, an Oregon state lawmaker and entrepreneur who helped launch the venture to bring Chinese students to Iowa.

On the third call, Clem interjected. “What are you talking about back there?” 

The broker was offering a college in Iowa: buildings, grounds, residences, sports facilities, a converted golf course, and an off-campus hotel. The seller, Bridgepoint Education, was closing it down and wanted to find a buyer by year-end to get a tax break. 

Clem was intrigued. He talked his buddy, Danton Wagner, into flying to Clinton for the weekend. Clem came away convinced it was a great opportunity. So the two men and a third investor set up a company, Clinton Catalyst LLC, and paid $1.6 million for Ashford’s assets. “We knew the hotel we could sell. We knew the golf course we could use or sell,” he says. “The college was the part we didn’t know what to do with.” 

The college was founded in 1893 by Franciscan nuns at a time when Clinton was growing rich in the lumber trade. Over the next century, as the city industrialized and then slid into decline, Mount St. Claire Academy’s fortunes rose and fell, and by the time it was sold to San Diego-based Bridgeport for $40 million in 2005, it only had 320 full-time students. 

Rebranded as Ashford, it retained its accreditation and ramped up online enrollment while handing out scholarships to attract students to campus. But a national backlash against for-profit universities led Bridgeport, which had invested tens of millions of dollars in new sports and science facilities, to end the venture.

In the summer of 2016, Clem moved into the shuttered college dorm and began working on a proposal to set up an elite science, technology, engineering, and math academy. In October 2016, then-Republican Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, who chaired a STEM task force, came to Ashford to deliver the bad news: There was no money in his annual education budget for a new STEM school. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Storefronts on a main street stand empty in Clinton, Iowa, a community that has lost more than one-third of its population in recent decades.

Governor Branstad then leaned over and asked Clem, “Have you thought about China?” From other state governors it might have been a throwaway line. But Branstad had spent decades cultivating trade and political ties to China, including to President Xi Jinping, who in 1985 led an official delegation to Iowa and returned as president of China in 2012. 

For his part, Clem had visited China many times on business trips and knew about the hunger for Western education. He began to work up a business proposal to woo Chinese investors. Two months later, newly elected President Trump picked Branstad as US ambassador to Beijing. 

“The stars were aligning for a China strategy,” says Clem. 

***

The Ashford campus was blanketed in snow in January 2017 when the first Chinese investors arrived. Below the hillside, the city of 26,000 spreads along the riverbank, its skyline defined by a giant corn processing plant with a coal storage facility encased in a golden dome. Other landmarks are less enticing. A vacant post office is one of dozens of abandoned and boarded-up buildings in a scruffy downtown hollowed out by economic slumps and population loss. 

This is the fate that Clinton was desperate to avoid for Ashford. “My goal was to keep the plywood off the windows,” says Norlin Mommsen, a Republican state representative. 

Clem and Clinton officials envisioned the creation of a private academy at Ashford for international students who would attend Clinton High School. The vision was a way to sidestep two major handicaps that districts face in enrolling international students. The first is that public high schools can enroll foreign students only for one year; private schools face no such limits. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Eason Yuan, a student from China, lies on his bed in the dorm at a Chinese-owned former college in Clinton. Chinese culture classes on campus supplement the students’ education at the local public high school.

The other is accommodation: Public schools don’t have dormitories and must rely on community homestays. Clinton had no student dorms. But it had a high school built for around 1,500 students with a current enrollment of less than 1,000.

“We have the space available. We can serve these [Chinese] kids,” says Mr. DeLacy, the superintendent. “Where else are you going to find an empty college campus that was basically in mint condition?” 

Clem had lined up five Chinese investors to purchase the school, but most were more interested in meeting Branstad than touring the campus, says Mr. Mommsen. Some of the visitors made snow angels in the drifts and took photos. None were ready to commit to Ashford. “Everyone kicked the tires and walked away,” says Clem. 

Then Clem heard about another potential buyer, Kong Lingtao, who ran two international schools in China and had bought a boarding school in England. He was actively looking to expand into the US. 

That Mr. Kong was scouring the country for shuttered schools to buy may seem an oddity. In fact, several have been sold in recent years to Chinese investors, including two colleges in New Hampshire. Jay Brennan, an education consultant in Maine who runs high school exchanges, says Chinese partners often ask if he knows of any US campuses for sale.

Kong seemed certain that he could find Chinese families who would pay top dollar for an international school that placed students in a US high school, supplemented by classes on a campus rooted in Chinese culture and philosophy.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Chinese students walk around the public high school they attend in Clinton. The town benefits from added racial diversity and a more populated high school, while the families pay out-of-state tuition for a coveted American education.

So last October Clinton Catalyst agreed to sell the main Ashford campus to Kong’s company, Confucius International Education Group (CIEG), for $12 million. Then in January Kong signed a one-year contract with the local school board to pay out-of-state tuition for 72 Chinese students to attend Clinton High School in 2018-19, with the promise of more to follow. “We can bring more international people to Clinton to make it more of an international town,” Kong told the board.

The school board voted 7 to 0 for the agreement. Eric Gettes, the board president, says the unanimity was about more than finances. “The opportunity for our kids to be exposed to someone from a different culture, to have a more global view of their education, was really exciting to us.” 

***

The sun is already setting when the white van pulls up to the international school’s steps. On board are four weary students who left China the previous day. Clem has organized a welcoming party. 

He wears sweatpants, a dark T-shirt, and a black baseball cap. On its brim is a pint-sized panda. Clem fusses over his fashionably dressed young charges, making sure their luggage is sent to the dorm. 

CIEG signed up only 15 students this semester. Regardless, it will pay tuition to Clinton for 72 slots, worth nearly $500,000, which will pay for five new teachers. CIEG officials say they expect a much bigger influx next year because they will have had more time to recruit. DeLacy expects enrollment to reach 300 within five years.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Chinese teens in Clinton, Iowa, live on a former college campus while attending public school here. The campus is owned by a Chinese investor who charges families $57,000 per child and is paying Clinton for 72 slots at the high school, worth nearly $500,000.

For now, the ratio of students to CIEG staff is almost one to one, and much of the campus feels like an empty historical site. Upstairs in the becalmed men’s dorm, Jack Yan glances at the cinder block walls in the room he will be sharing with another boy. His name is on the door. “This feels like home,” he says, wheeling his silver suitcase to the window. 

This is Jack’s second time here. In April, he was one of eight CIEG students who spent a week at Clinton High as a taste for what was coming. Now in 10th grade, he’s gregarious and jocular, an aspiring hip-hop musician. Back in April, when the projector froze during another student’s turn at a talent show, Jack, age 15, spontaneously grabbed a mike and roamed the auditorium, asking Clinton students and parents what they knew about China. 

After the talent show broke up, five local high-schoolers joined the visitors on the Ashford campus, shooting hoops in the gym and playing video games in their dorm. At midnight, Clem says he had to come out of his room to send everyone home. 

This is what CIEG, and by extension Clinton, is offering to Chinese parents: an authentic American high school experience, with all the social interactions and after-school hijinks that make up a teenage life. While Chinese students will live apart in their dorm, Clinton school officials say they will be fully integrated into sports and arts clubs and community events.

US school recruiters say Asian parents usually ask how many students from their country are enrolled. If the answer is none, some feel intimidated. But if the proportion is too high, then savvy parents may look elsewhere for a more balanced student body. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Teenagers from China eat lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Clinton, Iowa, a town of 26,000 people.

“The reason they send their kids to America is to have the American boarding school experience,” says Jeffrey Pilgrim, director of recruitment at The MacDuffie School in Granby, Mass., where Chinese make up nearly half of its 140 boarding students. “If there’s too many students from any one country, families don’t like that.” 

***

Ivy and her parents are shopping at Walmart, filling up a cart with towels and pillows and shampoo for her dorm room. As they wander the aisles, a middle-aged woman stops her cart to ask the family if they’re finding everything they need. She explains that she’s an elementary teacher and has heard all about Clinton’s newest students. “We’re so glad you’re here. Welcome,” she says.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Patrick Wang (l.) and Celine Wu, students from China, wait in a van after shopping for supplies for their dorm rooms at Walmart.

 

Ivy translates for her parents, who nod and smile. Her father is the general manager of an engineering company where her mother also works; Ivy, 16, is their only child.

A day later she joins the other Chinese students at Clinton High for an orientation. After a pep talk from the principal, student ambassadors guide the newbies to their lockers and classrooms. Sitting at a booth in the cafeteria, Ivy reflects on her academic path. “I think if I get into a pure American education earlier it will become more beneficial for me to go to university,” she says.

That means adjusting to US teaching and grading – CIEG uses a British curriculum – but also to its student culture, including the American slang and jokes that usually go over Ivy’s head. “The social aspect is very important. As international students, all of us are a little bit worried about making friends with local students,” she says. 

Prushia and others have talked excitedly about the football game and other festivities surrounding homecoming in Clinton, but the concept is fuzzy to Ivy. “They have a dance? And blah blah. I’m still not very clear,” she confesses. 

There’s no room for school dances in China’s education system, a grinding machine of rote memorization, test prep, and rigid instruction that leads inexorably to a single, two-day written test for seniors that determines Chinese university slots. 

Middle-class families seeking an alternative to this pressure cooker are drawn to the promise of a liberal Western education that pushes students to think creatively and independently. This is also seen as a path to success at a top college. CIEG’s brochures in China are sprinkled with the names of Western universities, from Harvard to Oxford to Stanford, to which students are expected to apply.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Eason Yuan, an international student from China, gets his student ID card on his first day of classes at Clinton High School.

The horizons of students at Clinton High are more modest. Of the roughly 30 percent of graduates who go on to four-year colleges, most stay in Iowa. A dozen or so go out of state to more selective schools, while the number of Ivy Leaguers is minuscule. 

What DeLacy hopes is that the seriousness of the Chinese students rubs off on their Clinton peers, while the school, flush with increasing tuition income, innovates and improves. “That’s a good pressure on us because we know we’ve got to hit a high bar,” he says.

As a bonus, Clinton High teachers will eventually be able to use seven state-of-the-art science labs at Ashford for their classwork. And there’s another, less tangible benefit that local proponents say is at the heart of their cooperation with CIEG: diversity. 

Clinton County is 92 percent white. A busload of Chinese students may suffice to double the Asian population. Where Clinton high-schoolers used to read about racial diversity and international trends, say school officials, now they can experience it firsthand without leaving home. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A US flag is displayed on the tailgate of a truck in Clinton, Iowa, a town of 26,000.

“We’re going to learn from each other,” says Rita Hart, a Democratic state senator who is running for lieutenant governor. “It’s going to make us stronger and better.”

***

So far that promise has proved popular in Clinton. One discordant voice belongs to Gary Heath, a retired, Berkeley-trained sociologist who taught at Ashford and has a reputation as a local gadfly. Mr. Heath cites the risks of what he calls an “unprecedented social experiment.” Integrating a small number of foreign students is one thing, he says, but 300 or more would represent a quarter of Clinton High students, potentially creating intergroup rivalry. “This is not the way you bring a minority group together with a majority group,” he says. 

That scenario depends on a ready supply of Chinese parents willing to pay $57,000 for their children to attend Iowa’s 23rd-ranked high school, which may or may not be realized. There are signs that the boom in Chinese arrivals has slowed as a glut of schools in the US and other English-speaking countries target the same market. Wealthy Chinese also have more options at home, including elite boarding schools modeled on US prep schools and staffed by Americans. 

International students make up around 35 percent of all students at traditional boarding schools in the US and Canada, up from less than 20 percent just 15 years ago, says Peter Upham, who runs The Association of Boarding Schools. But that rapid growth, led by China, has stalled. “There is significant evidence that growth has flattened out and in some cases started to turn down,” he says. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Tiffany Yang, a student from China, has her ID photo taken at her new school in Clinton, Iowa.

Perceptions that the US is less welcoming to foreign students, along with a strong dollar, are blamed for declining international enrollment at US universities. While the trend predates Trump, his visa bans and anti-immigrant stance have deepened the slowdown.

On a warm Friday night, Ivy joins her classmates in the stands at Clinton High School’s stadium for the first home game of the season for the River Kings. It’s Ivy’s first time at a football game, and Prushia sits beside her in a sea of orange and black apparel to explain the rules of the game and, just as important, to show her how to encourage the home team. In a photo, Ivy and Prushia smile and make V shapes with their fingers. 

The River Kings defeated the visitors, 34-9. And Ivy went back to her dorm, another American high-school experience notched.

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