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Original article URL: http://bridgemi.com/2013/08/oxford-goes-global-to-improve-student-learning/
12 August 2013
Oxford Community Schools is educating students far beyond its borders in the belief that it will make its local students more successful.
This growing rural school district in northern Oakland County, about 40 miles north of Detroit, is bringing dozens of students from China to finish their last two years of high school in Oxford. The students earn U.S. and Chinese diplomas.
It also has partnered with an educational group in China to start a school there – and some Oxford students are expected to attend. The Northeast Yucai Oxford Academy is said to be the first such partnership between an American public high school and a Chinese school.
Experts say Oxford is at the forefront of Michigan school districts in preparing students for a world where they are as likely to interact with coworkers in Shanghai as they are those in Southfield.
“Every community in Michigan could benefit by having such a dynamic, global cultural exchange,” said John Austin, president of the state Board of Education. “The virtues of doing this are tremendous.”
Oxford Superintendent William Skilling admits that there’s a financial motivation in attracting tuition-paying Chinese students at a time of tightening budgets for school districts across the state.
Chinese students pay $7,500 for their junior year and $10,000 in their senior year to attend school in Oxford. Thirty-seven Chinese students will attend the Oxford International Residence Academy this fall.
Chinese students live with host families in the school district. Oxford is planning to build a college-dorm-like living facility to accommodate more students.
Oxford graduated its first nine Chinese students in June. Most have remained in the United States and are attending universities here.
The school district expects to bring in $540,000 in tuition revenue during the upcoming school year. That’s only about 1 percent of the district’s $51.6 million annual budget, but enough to pay almost all the costs of Oxford’s global language program.
Skilling said he believes Oxford students are benefiting as much as the Chinese students from the cultural and educational aspects of the program, called the Oxford International Residence Academy.
“The reason we are helping to educate Chinese students is that it’s helping to educate our students,” he said. “We think we are helping to produce future political and business leaders.
“We need to prepare our students to work and compete successfully in a global market,” Skilling said. “That’s the only one that exists today.”
Oxford students are required to take 11 years of either Mandarin Chinese or Spanish. Skilling said about 2,400 Oxford students are studying Mandarin, more than all the students in the rest of the state’s school districts combined.
“We’re trying to blaze our own trail,” said Skilling, who started the tuition tuition academy in 2011. “We’re not relying on the state and federal governments to determine our educational future.”
He calls his district’s educators “edupreneurs” who are bringing entrepreneurial innovation to education.
Among its programs is a virtual school at which students around the world can take online classes for about $250 a class. Oxford students can take the classes for free. Oxford also has embraced the schools of choice concept, allowing Michigan students outside the district to attend its schools tuition-free.
Those things have helped the school district attract students at a time when many districts are facing shrinking enrollments and, as a result, less state revenue.
Enrollment at Oxford has increased from 3,974 students in the 2002-2003 school year to 5,269 students in 2012-2013 school year, according to the Michigan Department of Education.
During the same period statewide, public school enrollment fell from 1.71 million students to 1.56 million students.
The extra revenue generated by its tuition students and growing enrollment has resulted in Oxford eliminating “pay-to-play” athletic fees. And it has tripled its arts education offerings, Skilling said.
Tom Watkins, a former Michigan state school superintendent, said a number of other school districts around the state are beginning to teach Chinese and establish cross-cultural relationships with Chinese students. In addition to the educational benefits of such relationships, Watkins said attracting Chinese students could give financially strapped Michigan school districts a boost.
“This truly could be a growth market to fill up our empty space here,” said Watkins, a business and educational consultant specializing in China.
Skilling said instituting Mandarin and welcoming Chinese students to his school district were not easy things to establish in a state that sees China as a fierce economic competitor of the United States.
Shortly after becoming Oxford’s superintendent in 2007, Skilling started work on implementing the Mandarin language into the school’s curriculum.
Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, who set a goal in 2006 of having all of the county’s 28 school districts teach Mandarin, bolstered his effort. Patterson saw teaching Mandarin in local schools as supplementing his effort to attract Chinese investment to the county.
But the Great Recession of 2008 hit Oakland County hard. Many in the community blamed the Chinese for destroying auto jobs that were the economic lifeblood of the county.
“We launched our Chinese program at probably the worst possible time you could choose,” Skilling said. “There was a lot of rhetoric from Gov. (Jennifer) Granholm and other politicians that China was stealing our jobs. They made China the scapegoat.”
But Skilling said he believes that most parents in the districts are now supportive of the school district’s China programs. And he’s planning to expand Oxford’s offering to attract students from Mexico and other countries.
Some Oxford parents have even asked the school district to teach Mandarin to them, Skilling said.
“We have elementary students talking to each other in Mandarin,” he said. “The parents don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Rick Haglund has had a distinguished career covering Michigan business, economics and government at newspapers throughout the state. Most recently, at Booth Newspapers he wrote a statewide business column and was one of only three such columnists in Michigan. He also covered the auto industry and Michigan’s economy extensively.