April 3, 2014 12:00 am JST

Asia's prep-school fever

AKIKO SUGIMOTO, Nikkei staff writer

International School of Asia, Karuizawa, will this August open an international boarding school after successful summer programs.

TOKYO -- Asians are more enthusiastic than ever about education. That explains why boarding schools in the U.S. and Europe are admitting more students from Asia than ever before. It also explains the motivation behind some efforts in Asia to start prep schools that might make these students think twice about heading overseas.

     Let's look at the U.S. At the boarding schools there, which have their roots in the U.K., many leading students are Asians preparing to be future leaders.

     The Association of Boarding Schools reports that Chinese account for 27% of all foreign students in its roughly 300 member schools in North America and that South Koreans account for another 23%. That's right, 50% of all foreign students at these schools come from two Asian countries. That is up from about 25% 15 years ago. This provides a glimpse of the high degree of passion among parents in these two countries.

     At boarding schools, foreign students begin an American-style middle education while they are in their midteens. They live in dormitories and follow the schools' broad curricula, designed to motivate students to excel in sports and the arts as well as academic disciplines. Most U.S. schools offer four-year programs, running from grades nine through 12.
     Among U.S. boarding schools, the well-established northeastern prep schools that are members of the Ten Schools Admission Organisation are considered the most prestigious. Because they team up to send many students to acclaimed universities, they are often called the Ivy League of High Schools. Some were established during the American Revolutionary War, in the late 18th century.

     These schools cost $40,000 to $50,000 per year but have solid track records of producing Nobel laureates, noted writers, actors, executives, even U.S. presidents.

     Despite the impression that they are open only to an exclusive minority of U.S. elites, lately these institutions have been actively accepting foreign students.

     The Hill School in Pennsylvania, the alma mater of former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and Academy Award-winning director Oliver Stone, reports that 19% of its students are now non-U.S. citizens. The boarding school association says foreign students are essential to North American boarding schools in filling classroom seats and contributing financially.

Japan jumps in

Now Japan wants to start providing higher-quality education to teenagers. On signing partnership agreements with the Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and The Taft School in Connecticut, Keio University recently became the first Japanese school officially associated with the Ten Schools.

     This summer Keio will begin a program to send one student to Deerfield and another to Taft for one year. Each will be selected from Keio's four associated high schools. Under the traditional Japanese system, high-school students studying abroad have ordinarily had to postpone graduation for a year. Now Keio's students sent to the U.S. boarding schools can graduate with their classmates on their return to Japan, if necessary by taking makeup classes and doing extra work.

     "Boarding schools are attractive for their small classes and close ties between teachers and students," said Keio Vice President Akira Haseyama.

     The program's first students will return in June 2015, and "they will be a positive influence and stimulus for other students," Haseyama added.

     Keio has also agreed to expand its partnership with prestigious boarding schools in the U.K. in 2015 and onward. By offering tickets to first-class schools abroad, Keio hopes to raise its own brand value and attract excellent students with international sensibilities.

     In August, a boarding school will open in Japan, in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, a popular summer resort. In October, the prefecture authorized the International School of Asia, Karuizawa, as an educational corporation to operate the school.

     ISAK will be the first residential international boarding school in Japan. All classes will be taught in English, and graduates will receive the equivalent of a high-school diploma. Classes will be limited to 10-18 students, and teachers will live on campus as well.

     "With half the world's population and gross domestic product concentrated in Asia, there should be uniquely Asian leadership," said Lin Kobayashi, ISAK's founder and chairperson of the board. The school aims "to train leaders who can make a difference for the Asia-Pacific region and global society."

     For the first class opening in August, 50 students will be selected out of 233 applicants. Boys and girls from 20 nations applied including China, Thailand, India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Uganda, Somalia, Israel, the U.S. and Spain. Entries from overseas counted up to 66% of the whole application.  

     The Karuizawa school has already held three summer programs. The exp

erience there has resulted in the use of a "student-led school operation" concept. Students discuss and make the rules for use of school computers and operations of the dormitory and cafeteria, for example.

     "By starting from scratch, we temper the spirit of challenge without fear of failure," Kobayashi said.

     The school costs 3.5 million yen ($36,920) per student per year, including 1 million yen for housing, but it is still less expensive than sending a child to prominent schools in the U.S. or Europe. One in five students will receive scholarship assistance, so "the school will be open to middle-class and lower-income people," Kobayashi stressed.

     Kobayashi hopes her students will learn to embrace values other than their own. She anticipates positive chemistry from the mix of different nationalities and backgrounds.

     Economic globalization has raised corporate demand for tough, undaunted employees who can make smart decisions in any environment. These schools are hoping their graduates turn out to be exactly that.

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