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Community Builder: Opening St. Mary’s to the wide, wide world

Editor’s Note: Community Builder is a periodic Q & A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today’s conversation is with St. Mary’s School President Frank Phillips, who instituted the first Confucius Classroom in North America.

Q: One of the signature programs at St. Mary’s is the international students program. Describe the program and how it started.

Phillips: It all started in 2012 when my adult son married a woman from China. Her mother was the president of a major university and her dad was the minister of health for a major province. They had friends who wanted to send their kids to an American high school. They wanted to get them out of the Chinese system, which is pretty brutal on kids. Schools in China are highly competitive, test-driven; they have a high suicide rate. It’s very tough to get into high-quality universities in China, there are just too many people.

The St. Mary’s program started with three or four family friends of my new daughter-in-law and it just snowballed. We outgrew the number of families that could house a Chinese student, so we have been renting dorm space at SOU. We are now building a dormitory to house the international students on the St. Mary’s campus. The Chinese students come for four years of high school. They take their diplomas from St. Mary’s and then apply directly to American universities.

Our boarding program started with just Chinese kids. However, of 70 international students next year, about 40 are from China and 30 others are from all over the globe. We have students from Vietnam, Thailand, South Korea and Indonesia, a girl from Norway, another girl from Denmark, a Palestinian girl, four boys from England and a group of Argentineans who come for about three months during their summer vacation.

Q: What is the Confucius program?

Phillips: Back in 2008 we started a program with the Chinese Ministry of Education called Confucius Classroom to bring Chinese language and culture programs to America. St. Mary’s got a fully funded Chinese teacher who taught Chinese as a second language, just like we teach Spanish or German to American kids. Through this Confucius classroom program, Ashland, Central Point, Southern Oregon ESD and then Grants Pass jumped in, and they all started Chinese language programs with Chinese teachers. There are more than 700 kids in this valley studying Chinese every day, thanks to the program.

Q: Doesn’t St. Mary’s have satellite campuses in China?

Phillips: St. Mary’s currently has eight small campuses in China with about 100 kids each. We hire qualified, licensed American teachers who work for us in China delivering an American High School/College prep curriculum. Chinese kids take 11 classes a day. They take their Chinese diploma requirement classes and then their American diploma requirement classes. Graduates then have the choice of continuing on at a university in China or applying to universities in the United States. We have about 70 American teachers in China teaching for St. Mary’s.

Q: What have you learned from having international students attending St. Mary’s?

Phillips: I’ve made 40 trips to China over the last dozen years. I have a lot of Chinese friends. I have a great regard and warmth for Chinese people. They’re funny. They have a kind of similar sense of humor to the United States. They’re super hospitable when you’re traveling over there.

We’ve discovered international kids come over with a pretty big bell curve of English proficiency. Many are proficient in English, but most are not. We’ve become pretty good at ESL instruction over the years.

The other thing is cultural integration. That’s really tough. China has had a one-child policy, so these kids have parents and grandparents who have pinned their hopes on them and invested a lot of money in their education. These kids are told that job No. 1 is to get the highest possible GPA you can, take as many advance placement courses as you can, and get into the highest-ranked university. So taking a Chinese student with that kind of pressure and trying to get them to try a sport, to be in the school play, to sing in the choir, or to hang out with American friends is difficult. We actually have an enforced policy, not just the Chinese kids but all of the international students, which requires one activity per season. In fall, winter and spring they either have to play a sport or join speech and debate or the robotics team and kind of break down those walls.

Q: What do Chinese students tell you about their experience here?

Phillips: They tell us that the science and math classes are almost laughably easy, especially the math classes. They come here two years ahead of our kids, so we have had to add AP courses like advanced calculus and beyond to satisfy those kids. Those courses are really easy for them, but they really struggle with the humanities classes. A Chinese kid, even with pretty good English proficiency, trying to wade through 20 pages in an AP U.S. History book you’re asking them to do three or four hours of work and come away with a clear understanding. They find that to be a real struggle.

They all miss authentic Chinese food. The food is a huge issue for them. You’ll talk to these kids when Christmas break is coming up and they’re going back to Beijing or Shanghai or Wuhan or wherever and all they can talk about is getting home to real Chinese food.

Q: What do international students contribute to St. Mary’s?

Phillips: It’s been a slow eye-opener for our own students and their parents. These Chinese kids are lasered in on academic achievement in a way that American kids aren’t. Our kids are discovering that they’re sitting next to students from the other side of the globe who are beating them academically in English. So, in short, it’s brought globalization home to our kids.

Q: So U.S. kids see first-hand about international competition?

Phillips: Exactly, and these are the kids they’re going to be competing against not just for seats in college, but for jobs in corporations. Not to get political, but I don’t think the globalization genie is going to get stuffed back into the bottle. Our parents realize that it’s not the same world it was in 1960, ‘70, ‘80 or ‘90, and that our kids are in a world where they’re going to be competing against kids from all over the planet. It’s been good for the community, just bridging the cultures. It’s really good for the kids in this valley, which can kind of close in around you, to have this incredible diversity that these international kids bring into this community.

Q: How might Southern Oregon engage with China for the betterment of both?

Phillips: I think it’s an untapped vein of gold here. Crater Lake has a sister park with Wuyishan in Fujian Province, and groups of Chinese business people have toured Southern Oregon. Many of our international students are extremely wealthy, and their parents are power players whether it’s in Guangzhou, China or in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. When our Chinese parents come over here these students are paying $55,000 for our boarding program. Our Chamber of Commerce would do well to get involved with them. There’s a lot of potential business to be done.

Q: So how did a Rhode Island kid end up in Medford?

Phillips: My in-laws moved to the Northwest, so we vacationed out here a lot in the ‘70s. My wife took a job in Medford. She’s a physician, and I came tagging along in 1989 with a lapsed teaching credential. I looked at getting a teaching credential in Oregon, but I didn’t feel like redoing the coursework, frankly. I waltzed into St. Mary’s and just started teaching English and Latin; and here I am almost 30 years later. Most of my family is still back in Providence.

Q: What have you learned about this place that you call home?

Phillips: I love the Rogue Valley. Last year I was in Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, China, Europe a couple of times, and I always love flying home to this valley. I just think it’s got everything in the world going for it. Just the beauty! It takes me 8 minutes to drive from a 50-acre farm to school every day. The Pacific Crest Trail, Crater Lake, you have access to the coast, the golf courses I’m a big golfer. The friendliness of the valley, I don’t think you can beat it. I know I sound like the chamber of commerce. You’ve got OSF. You’ve got Britt. You’ve got the Craterian. You’ve got an airport where you can fly internationally. We’ve had Chinese families buy homes here. They’ve fallen in love with it. That’s what I’ve learned about the valley.

Q: How do public and private schools complement each other?

Phillips: I’m a public-school guy from the New England Public School System. That’s where I started. I ended up in a private school. St. Mary’s is the one place that we could do this international program. Private schools are tough because they’re a business. You charge tuition. If people don’t pay it, you go out of business. On the other hand, you can do things like build a dormitory and invite kids from all over the world to come to your campus, which you can’t easily do in the public system. I think that kind of freedom has really kept me interested for 30 years.

Q: It must be fulfilling to see the impact these international programs have had?

Phillips: We have a lot of our graduates working in China now, Americans. I’ve seen phenomenal friendships develop between our American students and the kids from other countries. One year eight Chinese boys went out for our St. Mary’s football team. We had to teach them how to just put on pads; they just fell in love with American football. Ben Huang, one of those kids, is now working at one of the St. Mary’s campuses in China as a P.E. teacher and he has introduced American football to China. Seeing those Chinese kids put on a St. Mary’s jersey and take their stance on the line of scrimmage was pretty cool. There are many heartwarming stories where American kids pick up an appreciation of another culture. It’s been fun.

Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.


Frank Phillips bio

A Rhode Island native, St. Mary’s School President Frank Phillips moved to Oregon in 1989 and started a career at St. Mary’s School as a teacher and administrator. Phillips taught Latin and AP English for many years while coaching basketball and golf.

As head of St. Mary’s School, Phillips instituted the first Confucius Classroom in North America, initiated an international boarding program, launched eight St. Mary’s campuses in China, and converted St. Mary’s School to a seven-term “module system.” He enjoys working with international students and seeing the fresh perspectives they bring to the American high school curriculum. Phillips has wide-experience in leading school accreditation teams in both public and private schools.

Phillips graduated from Brown University with a bachelor’s in English and minor in Latin. He earned a master’s in business from Notre Dame’s Mendoza School of Business. Phillips and his wife, Beverly, enjoy life on their 50-acre ranch in Southern Oregon.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Frank Phillips, head of St. Mary's School.