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A 'school within a school'

Realizing the demand for more English immersion programs for Chinese high school students, Medford's St. Mary's School is forming partnerships with at least three high schools in China.

The first partnership began last fall, when St. Mary's opened a "school within a school" of 60 students at the Jinhua private school in Shanghai.

St. Mary's provided four American teachers to teach a language immersion program for students in 10th through 12th grades — an arrangement that eventually will yield the Chinese high school students dual diplomas from Jinhua and St. Mary's and put them on track to attend a university in the United States.

The program provides Chinese students an opportunity to take advantage of a St. Mary's private school education without traveling to attend the school in Medford.

"There's this little number of boarding school seats out there," said Frank Phillips, St. Mary's head of school.

Phillips said that as St. Mary's worked on its own program to house and teach students from China, he developed lots of contacts in the country and realized the increasing demand for Chinese students to learn English in preparation for college in the United States.

St. Mary's has about 70 Chinese students attending classes at its Medford campus and staying either with a host family or in a wing of dorms at Southern Oregon University.

The program at the 5,000-student Jinhua received approval from the Chinese government last July, and opened for classes with 60 students on Sept. 1, Phillips said.

Next year, Phillips expects the Jinhua program to grow to about 140 students, and for at least two separate programs to begin at other high schools in China.

The program is tuition-driven, with Chinese students paying about $13,000 per year, split between the Chinese school for overhead, housing and recruitment and St. Mary's, which provides the curriculum and pays its teachers.

Phillips expects the demand for the program at Jinhua to grow, and the school to have 1,000 students within five years.

Ideally, students would complete the St. Mary's English program at a high school in China, then travel to the United States for college and return to China after, Phillips said.

Phillips said that China's university system is "more primitive" than the United States, and students wanting to attend must stress over the "gaokao," a brutal entrance exam for college.

Once admitted, students find that the class sizes in China are large and the curriculum unappealing.

"It's overcrowded, and it's just not that good," said Phillips. "They are cranking out tons of graduates who can't get jobs."

Phillips said it is a cliche, but it's true that everything in China comes down to the number of people who live there.

"To them, Southern Oregon University looks like paradise," said Phillips. "There's no way they could provide that low of a class size."

After graduation from a United States college, most students probably would return to China, fluent in English and with a business or engineering degree.

A few might get married or pursue a work visa and stay in the United States, he said.

This fall, St. Mary's has plans to open at least two more small schools in other areas of China.

The Ping Hu public school in Zhejiang, about 90 miles from Shanghai, and another school in Wuhan, in Central China, likely would each enroll about 100 to 120 students in the first year.

Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or tristow@mailtribune.com.