Competition in China for securing a spot in an international school is fiercer than ever before. Schools, though they are expanding rapidly simply cannot keep pace with the influx of new foreign families, and waiting lists have become formidable.
The curriculum, size and reputation of a school, not to mention its location, all need to be taken into account. And to make things even more nerve-racking, schools often recommend families to apply for admission before they move to China in the first place.
But don’t start drafting those home-school lesson plans just yet. While planning ahead is certainly useful, finding the right school in China may be a process not just a single decision.
Getting in twice
JoAnn Ohlrich began mapping out her two daughters’ education in China well before the family relocated to Shanghai from their small midwestern hometown in the United States two and a half years ago.
“I was initially so convinced where we were going to live and where the girls were going to go to school. I just knew everything,” she said. “Well, when we got here it was totally different. The scope of Shanghai was unreal to us.”
Turned off by the large size of the school she’d chosen and unwilling to endure hours of commuting, JoAnn started the school search over again and decided on the British International School Shanghai (BISS) in Puxi.
“We liked the idea that the British School was opening and we’d be founding members,” she said. “The area was less congested, and I knew I wanted to be involved in [my daughters’] academic lives.”
The Ohlrichs moved to a neighborhood adjacent to the school, which is in the northwest suburbs of the city, and JoAnn began riding her bike to the campus to help the school set up.
Her involvement didn’t stop there. As enrollment skyrocketed, the school hired her full-time to teach primary school, and she is now the school’s swim instructor.
In her current position, JoAnn sees many families facing the same fundamental question of whether to live in the heart of the city or closer to school. “A lot of parents [with children in BISS] come in and say, ‘Oh, I want to live downtown,’ but within a year, they’re moving closer to the school because it’s easier on the family, and in the end everyone’s much happier. If you want to take advantage of all the activities and sports the school offers, you have to live close by.”
JoAnn’s daughter Katie, an 11th grade student enrolled in the school’s International Baccalaureate (IB) program, says she was originally attracted by the school’s theater program.
Daily Mandarin lessons, which are a compulsory part of the school’s curriculum, keep her putonghua in shape, but she admits that her real language progress came when she started practicing outside of the classroom with a private tutor and with people on the street.
“When you first move here you get trapped between home and school, spending almost the entire week going back and forth,” Katie said. “But once I started getting out into the city, it really improved.”
For JoAnn, who sought to minimize culture shock for her family, staking out a small, manageable community between school and home has made the difference for her.
“We’ll be staying here at BISS until Katie graduates and goes to the US for college,” she said.
Kyle Rothstein, another 11th grade American student pursuing an IB diploma, is following a very different path – though no less predictable – to find his niche in Shanghai’s school scene.
Kyle, who began an English-Mandarin bilingual education at the age of five while still living in the US, arrived in Shanghai four years ago, already fluent in Mandarin.
With further language study clearly a top priority, he says the international schools he tried out didn’t fit his needs. So, in his second year, aged 13, he made the jump to a Chinese public school. He was one of only two Western students in the school.
“Sure, I got a lot of stares and a lot of kids saying, ‘What is he doing here?’, but everyone got used to me after a while,” Kyle said.
At Xuhui Middle School he found himself pushed in new ways.
“It wasn’t just that the Chinese was harder, but the math and physics were way harder, too. The kids were doing homework literally all day. I don’t know how they do it.”
Kyle’s father, Jay says he had some initial reservations about the Chinese traditional pedagogy of negative criticism as opposed to positive reinforcement, but says Kyle, being a special case, was treated extra well.
“I wanted them to have the full experience,” said Jay, speaking of both Kyle and his 13-year-old daughter Vali who has also attended Chinese schools. “It all boils down to the commitment to learn the language. It isn’t easy. [But] you don’t have that same feeling of success when you’re studying the language for 30 minutes at a time.”
Yet Jay quickly concedes that immersion in Chinese public schools is probably only feasible for very young children or older children with a great head start in the language.
Kyle has since moved on again, this time to the international division of Jin Cai High School (JCHS). Although this is another Chinese school, it has a newly developed IB diploma program, which means the majority of Kyle’s coursework is taught in English. There he believes he has found the right balance of sophisticated Mandarin lessons and a good university prep curriculum. He also plans to return to the US for university.
The school’s campus in Pudong is a 45-minute commute from the family home, and he takes a bus that picks him up every morning at 7am.
Unlike JoAnn, Kyle’s father didn’t mention feeling cut-off by living a distance away from the school. “[Living where we do], I knew it would be a bit of a commute for the kids, but it builds character.”