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Editor's note: Given the ups and downs of Chinese church-state relations, we have changed names and dropped cities that would give potential persecutors geographic hints.
In China, when 7th-grader Lei became depressed and unresponsive, his parents wondered what had happened. He hardly spoke when they picked him up from his public boarding school on Saturdays and dropped him off again on Sundays. It took months before Lei told his parents what was wrong: His grades were slipping, even though he studied almost every waking hour and often barely slept.
Like any student falling behind in China-where grades are based solely on test scores-Lei knew that poor grades would affect his prospects for high school, college, and a future career. Disturbed, his parents began inquiring about U.S. high schools.
With only one main education track in China-a secular public school system-a growing number of parents are looking for alternatives for their children. Like Lei's parents, some believe the stress of China's test-driven education system is too high, and parents with only one child are able to pay for an alternative. Meanwhile, Christian parents don't want their kids attending schools that teach God doesn't exist.
But there are few alternatives-private schools are held under the same rules and regulations as public schools, and Christian schools are illegal. Some parents choose to homeschool their children or send them to other alternative schools, but they lack legitimacy and authorities could raid them at any time. Some are choosing to send their children to the United States. And with schools in the United States desperate for more money, an increasing number of Chinese students are applying for American high schools: In 2005 only 65 Chinese students attended U.S. private high schools, but last year the number was 6,725.
When Lei's parents heard about a program that sends Chinese students to attend a Christian high school in California, they jumped at the offer. They were impressed by the school's 100 percent college acceptance rate, with 50 percent of students going to University of California schools. The high school also includes daily Bible classes, weekly chapels, and an application of biblical worldview to all subjects, and the students live with Christian host families. Lei's parents, who are not Christians, didn't mind the Christian influence because they "figured Christian teachers and students would be kind," he said.
Now Lei enjoys working in the high school's science lab, tinkering in the robotics club, playing basketball-things he wouldn't have had the time to do in China-and pursuing a dream: "I am not afraid of China education. ... I have a lot of friends who come to America, Canada, or England, and some of them I know are avoiding it, some of them don't have a dream, but I do. I want to be a businessman."
Sarah, a school consultant in China, said she meets many students like Lei's friends who come to the United States to take the easy way out and will "bring problems from China to the United States. I see the movement growing in an alarming rate, and my biggest concern is quality control on both sides." For the high school in California, this means a three- to six-month screening process that includes meetings with the families, interviews with the students, and English assessment tests. Sarah tells prospective students what to expect at the school, and if students are still interested, they are asked to fill out the application, file for a U.S. visa, and take an English prep program.
Parents often pay education agents thousands of dollars to send their kids to schools overseas, and some agents help students lie on their transcripts to get into American schools. In one instance, an agent referred to Sarah a Chinese student who had spent some time in a juvenile reform school. When she asked the agent about the stint, he responded that the student was there for a weight-loss program, but she learned the student had actually been sent there because of his gang involvement.
Some students like Hua, 14, came to the California school with top grades in her Chinese school. Her parents sent Hua to America because she could continue to excel academically and also have time for hobbies like painting and calligraphy. What Hua didn't expect was her budding friendship with her teachers and her newfound interest in reading Scripture. "The Bible is really new for me," she said. "I am not from a Christian home, but I am starting to know God."
Other students came to the California school because their parents were already Christian. Sarah said that about half the students coming to the school are from Christian families. Four children of house church pastors recently arrived.
Jia's parents had already pulled her out of a Chinese public school and were homeschooling her when they met Sarah. As Christians, Jia's parents wanted their child to go to a school that shared their beliefs: Jia, 16, says she's understanding the Bible for the first time and noticing changes in her outlook "a little at a time." The school also gives Jia a shot at college: A mediocre student in China, she felt discouraged about her future, but now she envisions returning to her hometown after college to teach English and one day homeschool her children.
Still, Sarah believes sending students over to Christian schools in the United States is not the solution. She believes more options inside China should exist for parents and students unhappy with the public school system. Homeschooling co-ops are popping up in Chinese cities. One group has grown from nine to 23 kids in the past few years. Parents in that city have formed about 10 other homeschooling groups, which are not connected for security issues.
Groups exist in 30 other Chinese cities as well, sources say. Homeschooling is a broad term in China that describes anything not government-sanctioned, including one-room schoolhouse models where students meet in a classroom and work on curriculum provided by outside programs.
The problem with these underground schools is that as students finish high school, they have nowhere to go next. Once students leave the Chinese education system, it is very difficult to come back, and they can't take the college entrance exam to get into a Chinese university. Their best option is America, although many cannot afford to go.
This is where Sarah believes Christians interested in China's education system need to push for reform: "There needs to be a Christian education movement that comes from Chinese Christians building their own curriculum [in China], and that needs to be done in the right way, where value can be taught as character education."