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Foreigners are parochial schools’ saving grace



WAYNE, N.J. » When she arrived at DePaul Catholic High School to join the class of 2014, Di Wang hardly lacked for international experience. The daughter of a Chinese petroleum executive from Shaanxi, she had attended an elite summer camp in Japan. She knew firsthand the pleasures of French cuisine. Her favorite movie was "The Godfather."

Her worldly exposure, though, did not extend to the particulars of a Roman Catholic education. Wang, 18, got her first lesson on that inside the school’s lobby. Gazing up at an emaciated Jesus hanging from a wooden cross, she was so startled she recalls gasping: "Oh, my God! So this is a Catholic school."

She is hardly an anomaly. American parochial schools from Westchester County to Washington state are becoming magnets for the offspring of Chinese real estate tycoons, energy executives and government officials. The schools are aggressively recruiting them, flying admissions officers to China, hiring agencies to produce glossy brochures in Chinese, and putting up Web pages featuring eye-catching photos of blond, tousled-haired students gamboling around campus with their beaming Chinese classmates.

The students, some of whom pay more than five times as much as local students, are infusing an international sensibility into these schools, and helping with their often-battered finances after many have suffered steep declines in enrollment.

Today at DePaul, 39 of the 625 students come from China. Besides courses like chemistry, European history, studio art and chorus, they also take theology, lead Christian service club meetings and attend monthly Mass, where they can approach the altar to receive a blessing from the priest during communion but cannot partake in the sacramental wafer because they are not baptized.

At Marquette Catholic High School in Michigan City, Ind., 20 Chinese students live in a brick Victorian and nearby carriage house, recently renovated to accommodate the school’s expanding international program. There are 60 international students at Melbourne Central Catholic High School, near Cape Canaveral, Fla., close to 10 percent of the school’s population. Most are from China.

"The students are not just going to the big cities," said Robert R. Bimonte, the president of the National Catholic Educational Association, in Arlington, Va. "It’s rural; it’s suburban and it’s small towns."

The schools do not require the students to convert. But, several school officials said, they must be respectful during prayers, enroll in mandatory theology courses and fulfill required Christian service hours, which means, for example, tutoring low-income students in a church basement or serving the hungry at a Catholic soup kitchen.

The accommodation goes both ways. At John F. Kennedy Catholic High School in Somers, N.Y., where about 9 percent of the student body hails from China, bake sales can include both cupcakes and guava-flavored hard candy. Students in the international friendship club decorate the school with wreaths for Christmas and red paper lanterns for Lunar New Year.

The Rev. Mark Vaillancourt, the principal, says only half jokingly that Beijing has become his fourth recruitment district, after the Bronx and Putnam and Westchester counties.

With the foreign tuition, he has upgraded the computer labs, completed a gym renovation, installed LED lighting and new ceiling tiles, and added more local students to the scholarship rosters.

Students from China pay $47,500, more than five times what local students pay. Some, but not all, of the difference is due to room, board and services like insurance. Vaillancourt said the higher bill was justified because the parents do not help out on fundraisers or otherwise contribute, and because he does not believe the students will become active alumni.

Besides helping their own schools, he said he and his counterparts were also developing positive relations between the church and China’s up-and-comers.

"You always want to be a good ambassador for the faith," he said.

Wealthy Chinese parents are not seeking out a Catholic education so much as an American one, to help prepare their children for college in the United States and to escape what many describe as a test-heavy, reductive educational system. Secular private schools have also been recruiting heavily in China in recent years.

Jiacheng Wang, a senior at John F. Kennedy from Ningbo, a coastal city, said he left China to obtain a well-rounded education in the arts and sciences. "I wanted to have time to do the things I love," he said, including drumming and singing. He said that the school’s religious affiliation played almost no role in his decision to enroll, but he now finds the school’s daily prayers calming. Sometimes before bed now, he prays alone.

"I believe in science," Jiacheng Wang said. "But now, I’m kind of 50 percent Christian. I start to believe this God stuff."

Asked during a phone interview from China whether she believed her son would convert, his mother, Li Qijun, 46, replied dismissively in Mandarin. "That won’t happen."

As for her own religious beliefs: "I don’t have any," she said. "I’m a party member, a Communist Party member."

Anna Sun, director of the Asian studies program at Kenyon College, says Chinese students attending parochial schools may well appreciate, and even be moved by, Christian traditions but not feel the need to make a classic conversion.

"Unlike in the West, where one is either a Catholic or a Protestant but cannot be both, most people in China have a more fluid relationship to religion, mainly because traditional Chinese religions are not monotheistic," she said.

The ranks of Chinese Christians are relatively small but growing, in part because of underground churches that have survived in spite of the government’s wariness of organized religion. According to a 2011 Pew Research Center report, 5 percent of Chinese citizens identified themselves as Christian, with less than 1 percent Catholic.

Recruiters and agencies that help place Chinese students in schools abroad say they do not make a big deal about the religious aspect of Catholic schools. Instead they push elements that they believe are more important to today’s Chinese families, using phrases like "the value-based, mission-driven" qualities of a Catholic education as well as safety and supervision.

Barnabas Chan, the international admissions recruiter for Bishop Kearney High School in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, which currently educates about 30 students from China, travels to cities including Kunming, Guangzhou and Zhuhai every winter to give talks at middle schools and in the sprawling living rooms of import-export magnates and technology executives. He says parents do not make much of a distinction between parochial and secular private schools. So, he does not "lead with it."

When they arrived at DePaul two years ago, Di Wang and 26 other students from China underwent a three-week orientation before classes began.

They got a primer on the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, ate pizza, toured nearby subdivisions and boned up on their English. Then they moved on to Catholicism.

Bethany Duane-Dacles, a history teacher and director of the school’s summer programs, says the seminars included videos, PowerPoint presentations and props like rosary beads. Students were taught the basics: the Ten Commandments, the hierarchy of the church, how to read the Bible and make the sign of the cross.

"If you don’t know who Jesus is, it’s really difficult," she said.

Theology teachers tend to pass fleetingly through sticky terrain. The church’s position on abortion, which directly opposes that of the Chinese government, is one such area.

Di Wang, who plans to attend college in the United States, says she has enjoyed learning about church doctrine, which she sums up like this: "Do good, avoid evil."

Sitting in the school library on a recent morning, donning one of DePaul’s black fleeces, she said her interest did not extend further. She intends to remain an atheist. Still, now, she does sometimes pray. "Thank God," she whispers to herself, "for this beautiful day."

Kyle Spencer, New York Times

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