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An American teacher receives a Chinese couple and their child's consultation at the North American Boarding School Asia Fair. 

Sending children to a private boarding school is not an option for most American families due to the US$30,000-40,000 annual tuition fees. But hundreds of Chinese families showed up last Friday at the China World Hotel for the first-ever North American Boarding School Asia Fair held in the country.

Organized by the US Association of Boarding Schools (TABS), the fair provides direct access for potential students to 300 college-preparatory boarding schools in the United States and Canada.

Usually, boarding schools in the United States don't take the initiative in enrolling international students. However, in the two years since the US government has loosened the strict visa-application policy for foreign students, there has been an increasing demand from aboard.

As a result of China's fast growing economy and the country's integration into the global market, many Chinese families are looking to enroll their children in elite schools before they go to university.

Half an hour before the doors opened, Zhu Hong and her granddaughter were waiting in the long queue outside the hotel's Grand Ballroom. The well-educated senior citizen spoke fluent English and told of her one key reason for attending this fair.

Her granddaughter attends a high school in Beijing. But she has to return to South China's Anhui Province for the national college entrance examination next summer, because her household registration is not in Beijing.

"I think every student should have an equal opportunity to get into a top university. But my granddaughter will have to score a much higher grade in Anhui than in Beijing in order to make it," Zhu says. "Maybe boarding school is an option for her."

Zhu said that she couldn't afford the tuition fees and would try to find schools that offer scholarships.

Queuing behind Zhu and her granddaughter, Mr Li was talking with his son. Li owns a food factory in Beijing and said that the tuition fees are not a problem for him.

"I want my son to receive the best education as early as possible, but I don't have any idea about boarding schools," the factory owner says. "This fair could be a good opportunity to get some information."

Li says that if his son, who is 14 and in his 2nd year at a junior middle school, is enrolled into a top boarding school in the United States, it would be a springboard to help him enter a leading university there in the future.

At 7:30 PM, the fair began. In the big hall, headmasters and student admission officers from 72 boarding schools stood by their information desks, ready to consult their potential Chinese students.

The US boarding schools fall into several categories, such as single-sex and coed, military and religious affiliated, urban and rural, small and large.

Roger Hill is the chief operations officer from Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia. He explained to Chinese parents and students that his school doesn't just train soldiers but offers students excellent academic training following a military structure.

"We maintain a secure environment where young men can stay focused and develop their character and foster a sense of duty and values throughout their life," Hill says.

The boarding school is known for its academic excellence. Its small class size provides students with diverse curriculum from math to visual arts, and provides individual attention from teachers and advisors.

Sixthteen-year-old Chen came with her parents. The bright and talkative young girl is studying in her 2nd year in a key high school in Beijing and is now applying to an American boarding school.

"Most courses at my school are not practical, and we are only wasting our time dealing with the stiff examinations," the girl says. She has been to the United States for a summer camp, which impressed her a lot.

"When I graduated from junior middle school, a few of my classmates moved to the United States to their further studies," she says. She worried it could be too late for her.

Chen's father agreed with his daughter and bailed out of investments to support her plan. "I found out that most boarding schools don't like to take students later than grade 10 (equal to grade 1 in Chinese senior high school)."

He said that it is also hard to meet the requirements of the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or Secondary School Admission Test (SSAT), a big hurdle to jump before being accepted into American schools and colleges.

Usually, language is the main obstacle for young Chinese students. At the fair, every boarding school consultant has an interpreter. However, since students treat this as an interview opportunity, most tried to communicate with the school representatives in English.

David J. McCusker, headmaster of Cardigan Mountain School in New Hampshire, a boys' boarding school founded in 1945, said that they enrolled two Chinese boys at the beginning of this year.

"They are good citizens on campus, polite and hardworking, their English has improved very fast as they study and live in an international community where many of them are from different countries and willing to talk to each other," he says.

McCusker added that the student-teacher ratio at his school is four-to-one, which means students receive an intensive education.

But while there were many parents hoping to get their kids into these schools, there were others who weren't so sure.

Meng Hong brought her 9-year-old daughter to the fair but did not know whether sending her away was the right thing to do.

"I was planning to send my daughter aboard after she graduated from a college in China, but my friends from Hong Kong suggest it is better to give children a top education as early as possible," she says.

"But an elementary education in China can provide students with a solid foundation; besides I want my daughter to keep some Chinese traditions," Meng says.

Thomas W. Sheppard, director of admission from Stevenson Boarding School, says he is rarely asked about tuition fees; instead, most are concerned with security and university prospects.

"There are 17 Chinese students in our school, studying diligently and with great determination to achieve at a high academic level in the future," Sheppard says. "We want students with clear goals for their future."

Chinese parents need to consider their child's personality before going to the next step, he added. "Those that are more open tend to be more successful."

Spots are highly competitive, with each school planning to enroll only four or five Chinese students.

According to TABS' statistics, only 60 Chinese students in Shanghai's middle and primary schools applied to study abroad in 1997. Since 2001, the figure had grown by more than 1,500 students annually.

(China Daily November 7, 2007)

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