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Talent & education

Oxford goes global to improve student learning

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. 

11 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Duane

    This a very informative article. It brings to light some new and creative ways school disctricts can enhance the educatioinal experieince for their students, their community, their finances, and to facilitate personal bonds across cultures and geographpy.

    This article describes how a school distirct that facilitate the successful learning of their students create opportunities that they can benefit from.

    Thank you Mr. Haglund for finding educational success and reporting on it. It would be interesting to hear the view from some of the forgeign students/parents about why they chose to go to Oxford, what they expect from the experieince and how well it has met those expectations.

  2. Rick Haglund

    Thank, Duane. We wanted to interview some of the Chinese students, but they weren’t in town yet for the school year.

    1. Duane


      I can understand how those students may not be available, both from a timing standpoint and a cultural hesitation.

      I do believe we the readers could benefit from their prespective on why the school, what their expectations are for the school/experieince and themselves. It could an insight in to how schools can succeed, how the student expectations impact their academic success, how the system supports them both from an academic and cultural adjustment standpoint, and how they physcologoly prepare themselves for the stress of school in a totally different environment. All things that could help schools and students.

      It would also be interesting to hear from the local students following the same points of interest. This could be a reference to cultural difference and commonalities of students in what appears to be a successful system.

      In any case I hope to read more from you in follow-ups to this article and to other articles taking a similar approach (looking for successes, innovation). I also hope you will be able to include some about the whys of those successes.

  3. Lee

    Mr. Skilling has taken a good school district and drove it into the dirt. Our tezt scores have gone down each year since his arrival. The emphasis in Oxford is keeping up with the jones and good appearances. The buy unwanted tennis courts but ignore building leaks and general maintenance issues. It is all about money and quaility education im afraid is a thing of the past .

    1. Stephanie

      There is a group of concerned citizens call the Truth in Education Accountability in Management 20 Year (TEAM20), it is a grass roots community group consisting of parents, members of the community and concerned citizens searching for the truth and community impact of the Oxford School District/Weiming Agreement.
      Please join us or send an email to

  4. janet

    Being a parent of children that were in the OVA (Oxford Virtual Academy) It was a night mare. OVA’s director Andrew Hulbert cares nothing for the students in his program and Dr. Skilling is using this program as the “cash cow” to cover the school districts deficit. This program has started at least 2 weeks late every semester, passwords are not handed out in a timely manner, curriculum is not order, technical problems run ramped, the mentor teachers have no interest in helping the students, the OVA lab has moved 4 times in 1 year (one time due to lack of state certification for students to be in the building). The first time students turned on their Oxford school laptops (and many times after, porn was on the screen). The Director ordered spy ware on the computers, not fire walls for students (this was never changed). Courses were dropped, not opened and closed, (end dates were moved around )without any communication with the parents or students. Everything is the fault of the students, curriculum suppliers and the state. NO ONE in the OVA administration is responsible or accountable for anything. Students are punished by kicking them out of the program without discussions with parents, kids are flunking courses with no communication to students or parents, grades are striped after being faithfully earned. Students that do not get to 80% course completion have to take Summer school (at their expense) plus start course over at 0%. They do not get to continue in the course with the parts they have completed counting. After ALL the weekly problems dumped on the OVA students there was NO time for weekends off, Christmas break, snow days, days off school for seated students, Spring break, etc every week students got emails stating these days were “all days they could work to get caught up”. Some teachers take vacations during the school year (days students are suppose to be in school) while students ungraded work sits there for weeks. The students are paying the price for the lack of planning, student consideration, policies changing daily, one hand NOT knowing what the over hand is doing and for a director with no leadership or organizational skills. Mr. Hulbert’s goal (with the support of Dr. Skilling) is to just get parents to sign on the dotted line to get state money, once that is done families are on their own to deal with all the weekly issues (if not daily) with OVA. Prepare to have your kids “hate” school and for “working ” with OVA to become a full time job. Parents went into this program wanting the best education for their kids. The reality is that virtual students are the orphan step children of Oxford School Dist. The virtual students do NOT even receive the same services, tutors, curriculum (example-Chinese NOW vs. Power Speak Lang.), special ed. services, number of classes, clubs, assemblies, support programs, kinds of classes (no music, art, orchestra, PE, tech, MEAP test taking, etc)…as the “seated” Oxford students. WHY, because it is cheaper not to give these services to the virtual kids and keep more of the state money per virtual student. They will tell parents anything they want to hear to get them signed up, I recommend parents go to the Oxford Virtual Academy’s website and read all the documents carefully (especially the student agreement- make sure to make copies of all your signed docs and print out all info off the web- it changes weekly and they try to hold you to the new changes through out the year) and you will find no where OVA’s responsibility to the students or the parents. There is a reason for that……..they are NOT responsible to hold up their end of the bargain up to you. Just our experiences, plus every one we know that was in the OVA program. All of families we know that were in the program are NOT returning. PS- look at their retention rate, number of public school students in recovery program, number of successful students, lower number of graduation credits (as the OVA diploma is a “special program” diploma-NOT an Oxford High School diploma), number students that got both semesters completed before June 7th, number students enrolled with 1 counselor and number of returning students from last year. If you have a special needs child- the director has no knowledge of this area and you will get no help from him in receiving IEP services for your student. I know of no one that requested IEP services, that came in as a virtual student that was granted them from Oxford School Dist..

    1. Stephanie

      Hi Janet,
      There’s a group of concerned citizens in Oxford that have created a group to stand together called Truth in Education Accountability in Management 20 Year (TEAM20), it is a grass roots community group consisting of parents, members of the community and concerned citizens searching for the truth and community impact of the Oxford School District/Weiming Agreement.
      Please join us at or send an email to

  5. Amy

    I have had a very different experience than “Janet”. I’ve consistently found the entire OVA staff to bend over backwards to meet the needs, and even desires, of families. The mentor and content teachers were such a help to my child, that I’ve added extra courses this year. There is nothing that the seated students in Oxford have that my child cannot also have if it were desired – sports, clubs, drama, seated classes are also available. There is a limit, as with everything to a total of 6 classes funded per semester.

    Mr. Hulbert and his dedicated team of professionals are just that – professional, caring, and competent. I’ve dealt with many school districts over the years, and I’ve never encountered one so flexible, understanding, and passionately committed to meeting the needs of their students – from special needs to highly gifted, and everything in between.

    I am not personally aware of any families who have left OVA because they were unhappy with the services provided. I personally know over 50 families who are happily continuing, and many like me are adding classes this year in response to the great experience we have had with OVA.

    1. SaraBeth

      Thank you Amy for your perspective. I am a supporter of OVA because of the partnership part of its program. This has been such a blessing to my family and others that home-school. There have been families not happy with OVA and I believe we need to give some grace to those that have struggled with the program on both sides, as administrators and mentor teachers to the parents trying to do what’s best for their students and family as a whole. We need to do that for all of us involved in education. It truly needs to be “parent directed” education. Each individual school in each community is only as good as the parents that are involved. Yes, some parents are a pain because they think their child is more special or gifted than they really are; but it is our responsibility as a community to love each other, “where we are at” and support each other the best that we can with what resources that are available.

      I do not believe that very many of us or our students will ever be as involved in the Chinese culture as Dr. Skilling does; mostly because I grew up in the 1960’s/70’s and we were told then that we would all have to speak Spanish because of the influx of the Latino culture. I still do not speak Spanish 40 years later. Yes this maybe a disadvantage when trying to minister someone who doesn’t speak English, but if I’m ever called to work in the Spanish speaking culture, I will learn it again. Same with Chinese – I do not believe in Dr. Skilling’s or our school board’s requirement of 12 years of Mandarin. Yes it should be offered as an elective, just like Spanish, French or any other foreign language – anything above and beyond the core classes of science, math, social studies and language arts (English) should be a choice not a requirement.

    2. Kerry

      My son took one AP course through the OVA during his senior year as The high school did not offer the course. It was horrible. The remote teacher lived in a resort area, probably more interested in hunting and fishing then doing his job. There was only one discussion board the whole first semester. The quizzes and tests were often on chapters not yet covered in the curriculum. The answers were inaccurate and created by a person chapters ahead of the course material. The teacher did not know the material. After one semester, my student quit the course and tackled the second semester on his own in independent study. He was assisted by one of the better local high school teachers. He ended up with a score of 5 on the AP test, no thanks to OVA (K12). If you take a course, I would recommend the basic high school courses, not AP or electives. Otherwise, it is just a money pit.

  6. Sue

    We are one of the families who left the OVA program, and thank goodness we did. Because of the mess that OVA is, my children failed most of their classes. I felt I had to send them back to public school after our OVA experience, since I was not able to homeschool anymore. We started OVA so that the kids could be more independent with their work and I could return to employment to support our family. Obviously, private school is not an option financially. We are a month into public school and the children are now receiving all As and Bs in their classes. They are NOT failing students, but OVA made them appear that way. So why comment on a website like this? I am not out to destroy a program that by some miracle “works” for some families. However, I do feel that the parents looking into this program need to be warned that not all experiences are good ones. I agree wholeheartedly with Janet. The program is a cash cow for the district, and we aren’t falling for it anymore.

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